Caring for Your Mental Health in the NICU
Having a baby in the NICU can be a stressful time for the entire family. You may feel helpless because you can’t help your baby more.
Perhaps you’re overwhelmed from juggling work, other children, transportation or finances. You may feel sad if you are unable to bring your baby home as planned, but happy because your baby is making progress and overcoming challenges. Weaving back and forth between fear, anxiety and grief is normal. These feelings and experiences can affect your ability to function and care for your baby.
Taking care of yourself during this time may seem impossible. However, in order to continue taking care of your baby, you must take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
Caring for your mental health in the NICU
Caring for your mental health does not have to be overwhelming. Here are some gentle suggestions:
Rest whenever possible
With a baby in the NICU, it may feel impossible to get any rest at all! Between visiting the hospital, possibly working, pumping on a tight schedule, and care time, it’s difficult to find any time to sleep. However, sleep and rest are important.
Allow yourself breaks from the NICU to rest or nap. Perhaps you can ask another family member or friend to help with cleaning pump parts, cleaning the house or caring for any other children in your home.
Talk to someone
Making space to speak with someone can help you process your birth story, have a safe space to discuss what you’re needing and how you’re coping. Reach out to your NICU social worker for local resources. Visit the Get Support section of the menu to join a Hand to Hold support group or request a peer mentor. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and let them know what you need as well.
Whether that routine is becoming involved with your baby’s care in the NICU (feeding, kangaroo care, etc.) or creating routines at home, routines are commonly known to help reduce levels of anxiety and create a sense of purpose.
Adequate nutrition and hydration
Planning nutritious meals can feel exhausting and time-consuming. Perhaps this is the time for a Care Calendar, or a meal train set up for you and your family. It’s okay to be specific in your dietary needs. Good nutrition and comforting foods can help you feel more connected to your support system and can boost your energy levels.
If you’re able to find a few minutes a day, you can start a journal of your baby’s NICU journey along with your lived experience. Journaling can be an outlet for your emotions and needs and is also a great conductor for developing clarity, insight and sometimes resolution.
Engage in a hobby
Do you enjoy listening to music or podcasts? Perhaps you can play your favorite music on the way to the hospital to invoke warm and inviting feelings. Do you love exercise? If you’ve been cleared by your health professional to exercise, try fitting in a few minutes of gentle walking, perhaps even around the hospital grounds. This is a great way to take a break and still be on-site.
When to seek professional help
You may try these suggestions or some of your own and come to the realization that it isn’t enough. When is it time to seek professional help? Symptoms may include:
- Constant worry
- Feelings of fear
- Constant anger and irritation
- Physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, etc.
- Feelings of isolation
- Intrusive Thoughts/Obsessions
- Lack of interest in the baby
- Panic attacks
- Loss of appetite or eating too much
It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to ask for support. It’s okay to not “do it all.” Be honest with yourself, your doctors and your baby’s doctors and nurses about how you’re doing. You are absolutely worthy of taking the time you need to care for your mental health.