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Caring for Your Mental Health When Your Baby is in the NICU

The intense emotions, worries, and demands of having a baby in the NICU can significantly impact parents’ mental health. Here’s what you can do to support yourself during this time.

Having your baby stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a stressful, scary, and exhausting experience for new parents.

In this article, a maternal mental health therapist and NICU mom shares some steps to guide you in caring for your mental health when your baby is in the NICU.

Caring for your mental health with a NICU baby

Becoming a new parent is a huge adjustment. And when your new baby is admitted to the NICU, the challenges can feel overwhelming.

NICU parents face unique stressors. Being separated from your baby, worrying about their health, and navigating the unpredictability of intensive hospitalization can be incredibly stressful and scary. 

Taking care of yourself and your mental health might be low on your list of priorities right now as you’re going through a rollercoaster of emotions, learning what seems like a whole new language talking with medical professionals about your baby’s health, and figuring out the logistics of spending time with your baby in the NICU. 

But taking care of your mental health is so important, even if it doesn’t feel necessary or even possible. Not only will it help you recover emotionally and physically from an early or traumatic birth yourself, but caring for your mental health while your baby is in the NICU is also essential for caring for your baby.

Read next: The Anxiety of Having Your Baby in the NICU

Steps for caring for your mental health when your baby is in the NICU

  1. Acknowledge your feelings
  2. Connect with others who share your experience
  3. Ask for help
  4. Practice self-care
  5. Know when to get help with your mental health

1. Acknowledge your feelings

A NICU stay was probably NOT part of your birth plan, and you might experience big emotions, including fear, guilt, grief, sadness, and anger. These feelings are extremely common for NICU parents, and you are not alone.

Acknowledging and naming the feelings you have about your baby being in the NICU is the first step to being able to manage any emotions that are overwhelming or stressful.

Feelings serve a purpose: they are mighty messengers that can give you feedback about what you need.

For example, feeling sad gives you the feedback that a loss has occurred and you need healing. Feeling fear or anxiety gives you the feedback that there’s danger and you need safety and security.

Tuning into your feelings gives you insight into what can be helpful for you in getting through this challenging experience. 

2. Connect with others who share your experience.

Connecting with other NICU parents through support groups or online communities can be supportive and healing. It can be validating and meaningful to talk with someone else who understands what it’s like to have a baby in the NICU and can relate to your experience.

Research shows that parents who receive this kind of peer support have increased confidence and well-being and are better able to cope, even having less stress and anxiety.

Organizations like March of Dimes and Hand-to-Hold have accessible virtual peer support programs and information for NICU families.

3. Ask for help

Asking for help is hard for many of us, but external support becomes necessary to care for your mental health when your baby is in the NICU.

It might feel like the world has stopped turning when you’re just focused on surviving the day-to-day of NICU life and thinking about your baby, but life does keep going, and other responsibilities still need attention.

Don’t be afraid to contact your family and friends for support. Many people want to help but aren’t sure how to.

Asking for help to handle practical things like caring for other children or pets, cooking, and running errands can allow you to focus on yourself and your new baby.

If asking for help feels hard, remember that this is a way to invite others in and allow them to support you, not a sign of weakness.

4. Practice self-care

Self-care is vital to coping with the challenges of having a baby in the NICU. Simple self-care activities like eating balanced meals, resting, and moving your body immensely reduce stress.

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Eating three meals daily during this hectic and draining time can be challenging. Try to find a few minutes each day to check in with yourself and take a break, maybe by journaling, meditating, or just taking deep breaths.

It’s okay to take time off from the NICU. Taking time away to do things you enjoy or to rest will help you recharge. Your rest benefits your baby, too. 

5. Know when to get help with your mental health.

NICU parents are at a higher risk for Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders, or PMADs. PMADs is the term for a group of mental health diagnoses that include postpartum depression, anxiety, and more.

While 10-15% of the general population experiences a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder, studies place the rate at 20-30% higher for NICU families.

Symptoms of PMADs can cause significant distress and make it hard to care for yourself, function in your day-to-day activities, and bond with your baby.

All perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are treatable. Know the signs and symptoms.

Knowing if you aren’t feeling like yourself is more important than fitting into a diagnosis and asking for support. A therapist trained in perinatal mental health can help.

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Final thoughts on how to care for your mental health when your baby is in the NICU

In conclusion, caring for your mental health while your baby is in the NICU is crucial for your well-being and your baby.

Acknowledging your feelings, connecting with others, asking for help, practicing self-care, and knowing when to seek professional help are all crucial steps.

Taking care of yourself makes you more capable of caring for and bonding with your baby. Taking care of yourself is necessary for being the best parent you can be, including caring for your mental health. 

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