Coping with stress in the NICU

KEY POINTS

  • Having a baby in the NICU can be stressful for parents. Expect to have strong feelings about your baby’s health and care.

  • You, your partner and your family may deal with the stress of the NICU differently. It’s OK to have different feelings.

  • Go to shareyourstory.org to find support and encouragement from other parents with a baby in the NICU.

  • It’s important to take care of yourself so that you can care for your baby.

  • Ask for and accept help from friends and family. Tell them exactly what they can do to help.

How do you feel when your baby is in the NICU?

When your baby’s in the NICU, you’re probably pretty stressed. Stress is worry, strain or pressure that you feel in response to things that happen in your life. You may be worried about your baby’s condition and when you’ll be able to take him home. Your relationship with your partner may be strained because this situation is new to both of you. You may feel pressure to be with your baby in the NICU instead of at work or home with other children. All these things cause stress.

When your baby’s in the NICU, you may have a lot of different feelings. You may feel: 

  • Scared about your baby’s medical condition and what may happen to her in the future
  • Sad about your baby being in the hospital and not at home like you planned
  • Overwhelmed by responsibilities outside the NICU, like going to work, paying bills, taking care of other children and taking care of things at home
  • Angry about the changes that the NICU makes in your life and the loss of not just giving birth and taking your healthy baby home
  • Guilty that your baby’s in the NICU
  • Helpless and frustrated because you can’t do more to help your baby
  • Love and pride in your new baby
  • Happy about the progress your baby makes and the problems she overcomes

When your baby’s in the NICU, there’s no “normal” way to feel. You and your partner may feel differently. Know that many families who have had a baby born early or sick share the same kinds of feelings that you and your partner have. 

How can you take care of yourself when your baby is in the NICU?

When your baby’s in the NICU, it may be hard to think about taking care of yourself because you’re so focused on your baby’s needs. But taking care of yourself can help you stay well and have more energy to spend time with your baby. 

Here’s what you can do to help take care of yourself when your baby’s in the NICU:

  • Stick to a daily routine. Every day, take a shower, eat healthy foods and regular meals, drink plenty of water, and get a good night’s sleep. As part of your routine, decide when you want to be with your baby in the NICU. 
  • Connect with other NICU families at NICU classes, in the family lounge or in the NICU hallway. They may understand how you’re feeling better than friends and family who don’t have the same experience.  You can meet and talk with other NICU families on shareyourstory.org, the March of Dimes online community for families. 
  • Take breaks from the NICU. It’s OK to make time for yourself and your family.
  • Talk to a counselor. This may be someone from the NICU staff or a social worker or your religious or spiritual leader. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to someone other than your family and friends.

What can you do if you need to go back to work when your baby’s in the NICU? 

If you need to go back to work while your baby is still in the NICU, tell the NICU staff. Let them know your work schedule and when you plan to be with your baby. Before going back to work, talk about your schedule with your supervisor. Ask how you can get time off from work if you need to get to the NICU. Ask if you can work different hours so you can be with your baby when it’s best for her.

How can friends and family members help when your baby’s in the NICU?

It’s OK to ask for help from your friends and family. Many of them want to help, but they don’t always know how. Tell them exactly what they can do for you. For example, ask them to:

  • Bring a meal or snacks to you and your family at the hospital or at home
  • Do your grocery shopping or laundry or clean your home
  • Help with your older children
  • With your OK, share updates about your baby through blogs, email or social media
  • Drive you to and from the hospital
  • Go with you to meetings with your baby’s providers at the hospital and take notes to help you remember what was said
  • Sit with your baby in the NICU so you can take a break if the NICU allows visitors to be with your baby without you). Or if you have more than one baby in different rooms in the NICU, they can sit with one while you’re with the other.

What if you feel sad and overwhelmed when your baby’s in the NICU?

You may be extra emotional when your baby’s in the NICU. But there may be other reasons you feel sad. For example, you may have the baby blues. Baby blues are feelings of sadness many women have 3 to 5 days after having a baby. The feelings most likely are caused by all the hormones in your body right after pregnancy. You may feel sad or cranky, and you may cry a lot. These feelings usually go away about 10 days after your baby’s birth. If they don’t, tell your provider.

If you have more intense feelings of sadness or worry that last for a long time, you may have postpartum depression (also called PPD). PPD is different from the baby blues. It’s a serious medical condition that needs treatment to get better. PPD often starts 1 to 3 weeks after having your baby, but it can happen any time in the first year of giving birth. Having a baby in the NICU can increase your risk for PPD. If you think you have PPD, tell your health care provider. 

See also: shareyourstory.org

Last reviewed: February, 2017