Being a parent is a wonderful and life-changing experience, but by no means is it always a happy experience 100% of the time. Mothers are often riddled with guilt that they should always be happy, and if at any time they aren’t, perhaps they are being ungrateful. This prospect of “mom guilt” takes on a whole new level with mothers of premature infants.
Having a premature baby is very stressful on a parent. You’ve envisioned a healthy term newborn baby, and for a multitude of reasons, this wasn’t what happened after your baby’s delivery. As a NICU parent, you are overwhelmed with the stressors of uncertainty, sleep deprivation, the physical recovery after child birth, and of course, the emotional toll. On top of all the worry about her health, you likely feel you are missing the experience of holding, breastfeeding, and bonding. Perhaps, as a mother, you can’t hold or touch your baby whenever you want or spend as much time with him or her.
All of these changes are so overwhelming to a mother who envisioned motherhood to be a particular way and is suddenly thrown into a world she never imagined. Often times, mothers may blame themselves for not being able to bring their baby to full term. To those mothers, I want to say it is not your fault.
Research has shown that up to 3 of 4 NICU mothers can experience postpartum depression and many go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Many families associate the NICU with a traumatic and scary time in their lives. The mind can feel overwhelmed when processing the latest medical information and what’s happened since the delivery. Mental health can suffer and begin to look like hypervigilance or heightened anxiety, obsessive thoughts, or excessive worries. Feelings of depression can manifest as insomnia, numbness, and even anger. Sometimes, these symptoms continue to manifest when baby is home which alludes to the post-traumatic stress disorder mentioned earlier.
Often, mothers feel they can’t bond with their infant the way they would like to which contributes to feelings of lost identity and can further manifest as depression. Even if you can’t hold your baby until they are more medically stable, ask the medical team if you can touch your baby. Many NICU’s do allow and encourage parents to do “skin to skin” with the infants as it can help regulate a number of organ systems for the baby.
While I myself have never been a mother to a premature infant, I have been around families of premie babies on a frequent basis from in the NICU to thankfully, even having the pleasure of seeing them on an outpatient basis.
My personal suggestions for parents of infants in the NICU:
No matter what you do, step away for at least 30 minutes every day. It can be broken up but at least 10-15 min chunks of time. Step away and take a coffee break. Find a quiet place out of the NICU to get some fresh air. Some hospitals have outdoor patios and garden spaces that are used for just this purpose by patients’ families. If meditation or deep breathing helps, try these exercises to clear your mind before entering the NICU again and unloading some stressors.
If you can, try to incorporate small steps of your daily routine back. That means some form of physical activity, even if it’s a slow stroll while recovering from delivery. Try to bring some foods from home so the hospital cafeteria isn’t your only source of nutrition. Looking after your diet and physical health will help you feel more alert mentally with the different situations thrown at you.
Try to take some time to go home and sleep as well or inquire into a room for parents where you can stay overnight. Sleep may be tough to come by, but again deep breathing and detachment exercises can help unwind the mind.
Try your hardest to stay away from Dr. Google, and instead join online NICU support groups or groups within the hospital. This is a nice way to share big or small victories and obstacles with families who know what you’re experiencing. Every victory is worth a celebration. Don’t get bogged down with googling every procedure and diagnostic test that gets mentioned as it can be overwhelming and frankly scary if you only read the worst case scenarios.
Lastly, try to connect with your significant other. This is a unique situation that only the two of you can really understand. Take a night out a week to go out to eat. It doesn’t have to be a fancy date night but getting a change of scenery can help. Make it a point to attempt to discuss non NICU related topics. Ironically, time away from the NICU can help families focus more on their happiest moments together while in the NICU.