The Anxiety of Having Your Baby in the NICU

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. A place you do not want to be but grateful for when you are. As the NICU can trigger feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, we hope this article helps ease your worries.

All mothers hold hope that once a baby is born, he or she will be placed on mama’s chest, and the two can spend hours skin to skin and soaking in the bliss. This is not always a reality, as 10 to 15 percent of all babies born in the United States require special care in the NICU

NICU sign

Why do babies go to the NICU?

The NICU is where these little neonates get special around-the-clock care that they would not be able to get in the maternity ward.

A baby might go to the NICU if he is preterm, having respiratory distress, hypoglycemia, and many other health reasons. Some moms know that their baby will need to go to the NICU before delivery, and others are completely taken by surprise. The NICU is the place that saves babies’ lives and supports little fighters as they make their way home.

Common feelings with a baby in the NICU

NICU is, for many parents, a place of great loneliness, anxiety, uselessness, hope, motivation, and PTSD. The experience is, of course, different from family to family, but for many, it is experienced as a time of ambivalence.

Some parents describe feeling: shocked, overwhelmed, grateful to have the care and treatment of NICU, stressed, angry, detached from baby, guilt that the circumstances could have been different, excited and joy of the birth of your baby, and pride in observing developments and achievements.

There is little more vulnerable and fresher than a newborn so picturesque and innocent. In the NICU, seeing your baby attached to machines and wires can visually be completely overwhelming. It is traumatic to see the human you love the most experiencing a medical trauma.

What some moms find most challenging is the powerless feeling of not being able to do anything about their babies’ distress. I remember thinking to myself as I saw my daughter on oxygen before she could even open her eyes, “how can something so small be ready for something so big.”

A NICU ward is not the quietest space as many machines and alert alarms signaling vitals. I personally found this commotion to be daunting; not knowing which machine to focus on or which numbers were “good” numbers, I rendered to having no control of the outcome yet so desperately wanted to have answers.

baby crying in the NICU with wires

Relationship between mental distress and the NICU

In one study, 30 NICU mothers were interviewed six months after their babies’ due date; all mothers had at least one posttraumatic symptom, 12 had two, and 16 had three symptoms. The study scored them on increased arousal, re-experiencing, and avoidance.

With the awareness that NICU can be experienced as traumatic for the parents, some hospitals have fantastic support and programs offering counseling and even “buddy” systems where moms are partnered with other moms who had graduated NICU and can offer peer support.

Sadly, not all hospitals are as well equipped, which makes it even more important to educate NICU moms on how to go about finding the help they deserve. It’s important to know your risk factors for developing a perinatal mood disorder and seek help ahead of time.

Stress when finally leaving the hospital

As anxiety-provoking as this hospital experience can be, leaving the hospital with your baby can be just as scary. After watching professionals take meticulous care of your baby, you may question if you are qualified enough to take this responsibility.

Again, I use the word ambivalence, as with that fear comes so much pride and excitement. The road can feel long, the road can feel lonely and isolating, and if it does, you are still an incredible mom to your little fighter, and you are not alone.

Tips for reducing anxiety with a baby in the NICU

I had a mom recently ask me, “how do I stop worrying about her?”.

Her little one was born eight weeks premature and spent time in NICU. As ao, you spend (however long your gestation is) weeks protecting and caring for your little fetus; you hold her closely in your womb and get accustomed to those movements.

At the scans, you monitor growth and heart rate and eagerly keep an eye. 

Then the baby is born. Everything is centered on goal-reaching, number counting, stats viewing, and a constant observation game in the NICU. When you have spent the last (gestation plus NICU stay) weeks or months monitoring your baby, longing for a happy outcome, worry has become engrained.

I asked myself how, how can you turn off the worry switch? The answer is I do not think you can. There will always be an element of worry. The goal is not to let that worry be debilitating.

Sometimes this worry can feel heightened once our little one has found autonomy, once they start running or attending childcare, and suddenly, we aren’t able to observe their every move/breath.

Read Next: Learn more about one mother’s experience and the lessons she learned in the NICU that are helping her today.

NICU equipment

Empower and prepare yourself beforehand

If you’re currently pregnant

If you are pregnant and are at high risk for preterm delivery or a possible NICU stay (of course, it is not always predictable), ask if you can have information on common newborn practices. This should ideally include education on what machines are typically used in a NICU.

Knowledge can empower you and slightly lessen the shock when walking into a NICU for the first time. I personally found this extremely beneficial, and it helped me feel a little more prepared.

Already have a baby in the NICU

If you currently have a baby in the NICU, it can feel terribly lonely, especially when many around you are taking home their babies and you are coming to and from the hospital empty-handed. Find your people; with so many online platforms and users, find a support group to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with other moms going through similar experiences.

Life after having a NICU baby

Some parents who have previously had a baby in the NICU might find having further children terrifying. If you are pregnant and struggling with the anxiety of having another traumatic experience, remember you are a different person this time around.

You have new tools and experiences to draw from. You can perhaps ask yourself what support I need this time around that I did not last time?

If you feel extremely anxious or something in this article resonated with you and you would like to work through it on a deeper level, find a therapist to book an appointment with. Someone you can connect with and build a therapeutic relationship with. What works for one mom might not work for another, so find what suits you.

You have got this! Happy healing, mama.

Sharmon Reddington

HPCSA Registered Counselor

Sharmon is a Registered Counsellor and mother of two. She runs a private practice, Mum Well, where she provides therapy to pregnant and postpartum moms. In addition to postpartum needs, she also provides mental health support in attachment, addiction, bereavement, trauma, parenting guidance, and relationship and marital difficulties.

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