The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can be a very stressful place. Not only are you recovering from labor and delivery, but your baby (or babies) needs special attention for prematurity, a traumatic birth, or other medical issues. Whether your newborn is in the NICU for a few hours or several months, here are some tips to help you get through this time.
- make friends with another family in the NICU
- make time for yourself outside of the hospital
- seek professional help
- participate in your infant’s care routine
- research financial assistance
- ask questions
- see if your NICU offers a support group
- designate friends to answer questions
- skin-to-skin contact with your baby as soon as you are able
Meeting with other families can be helpful on many levels. You are both experiencing the trauma and emotional roller coaster of the NICU at the same time. These emotions are something that your friends and family cannot understand completely unless they too, have had a child in the NICU. If one of you is farther along in your NICU stay (e.g. you both have 28 week premies; yours is now 8 weeks old and theirs is 1 week old), you can provide perspective and support to the other family, and vice versa.
Although you and your partner will likely want to spend every moment at the hospital with your baby, it is important to find time to be alone with your spouse. Go out to dinner. Take a long walk. Watch a movie together. Talk about your baby, but also talk about other things. When under stress, marriages can experience incredible strain. Make the time to invest in your partner and keep your relationship alive.
The stress of a critically ill baby, combined with postpartum hormonal changes and your own mental health history, can result in high anxiety and/or post-partum depression. Some families who have been in the NICU even experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Talk to a psychologist or therapist to address these issues. Left untreated, these can diminish a mother’s breast milk supply and affect bonding. Extreme cases of postpartum depression and PTSD can even result in suicidal thoughts and feelings. Talk to your doctor to see if medication can help you. (There are many medications that are safe for your infant if you are breast-feeding.)
By changing your baby’s diaper, taking her temperature, and learning how to feed him, you are preparing yourself for when your baby comes home. Ask the NICU staff if you can participate in “rounds,” when the NICU staff discuss your child’s care and the plan for the coming days and weeks. You are your child’s greatest advocate.
There are many state, federal, and private programs that offer assistance to infants, oftentimes based on his or her birth weight, diagnosis, or disabilities. For example, a Federal Social Security Disability program is available for infants who are born at a low birth weight or who are identified as having a disability. Some programs (like Social Security) will take into consideration your family’s income, while others will not. Ask the social worker if your family qualifies for any of these programs. The results may be cash assistance, insurance coverage, transportation or lodging arrangements, or enrollment in community programs (to name a few).
There are no silly questions in the NICU. If you are unsure of something, or unclear about your child’s medical plan, ask the doctor. There are many members of the NICU team who are available to help you.
Participating in a support group will connect you to other families and help you process your feelings related to your infant’s condition. These may be facilitated by a social worker or nurse.
In the days following your delivery, friends and family members will want to hear updates on you and your new baby. Many parents feel overwhelmed with the information they are receiving from the NICU staff and have a hard time fielding questions/concerns from others. Designate a friend or family member to field questions so that you can focus on your new baby. Try a support blog or website like CaringBridge.com.
Skin-to-skin (“kangaroo care”) is an excellent way to promote bonding, stabilize your baby’s heart rate, and help your baby gain weight. It can also help increase a mother’s milk supply. Ask your baby’s nurse if your baby is able to tolerate this and then do it as often as you and your baby are able.
When your baby is in the hospital, you will likely be spending all of your free time there. In addition, you may find yourself distancing yourself from friends and family who “don’t understand” what you are going through. Instead of isolating yourself, make time to see your friends and family. A coffee date with a friend or a shopping trip with your mom can be the “normal” afternoon you have needed. Remember, be patient with your friends and family as they try understand your baby’s condition.
Almost every baby in the NICU has some kind of setback, whether they are slow to nipple feed, acquire an infection, return to the ventilator, or have a complicated diagnosis. Many parents say the NICU feels like a “roller coaster.” Don't get trapped on the ride; try to look at the big picture.
Many parents, especially those with other children at home, feel guilty when they are at the hospital and not spending time with their other children, and simultaneously feel guilty when they are at home because they are not with their baby. Every parent needs time away from the hospital to de-stress, unwind, and rest. Your baby has a whole team of qualified medical personnel looking after him.
Your infant’s time in the NICU can very stressful. But there are a few things you can do to manage the stress and become more confident as a parent. By actively participating in your infant’s care, working closely with the NICU team, and finding time for yourself, your partner, and your support system, you can be healthy and balanced during your infant’s hospital stay.
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