Coping with postpartum anxiety and PTSD in the NICU

July 6, 2023

If your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU,) it's normal to feel anxious and worried. You may be worried about your baby’s condition and when you’ll be able to take your baby 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 at home with other children. All these things cause anxiety. 

Even after your baby leaves the NICU, you may continue to feel anxious or experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The NICU can be a stressful place. There's a lot of complicated equipment and many different types of staff coming in and out. And, depending on your baby’s condition, you may have some scary days. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety can include feelings of fear, dread, or uneasiness. About 40 percent of parents with babies in the NICU experience anxiety in the first month after birth. According to one report, “the estimated pooled prevalence of anxiety up to one month after birth was 41.9 percent across 19 studies including 3,377 participants.”

If you have intense anxiety after having a baby, that may be a sign of postpartum anxiety. Postpartum anxiety “is when a person experiences severe anxiety after having a baby or becoming a parent (the postpartum period).”

Symptoms of postpartum anxiety may include:

  • Staying awake all night because you are afraid your baby will stop breathing in their sleep.

  • Being terrified to leave your baby alone for a few minutes with an adult you trust (or your partner).

  • Being so afraid someone will hurt you or your child that the thought of leaving your house makes your heart race.

How is anxiety treated?

When your baby is in the NICU, every day can be stressful. So, if you think you may have postpartum anxiety, see your healthcare provider right away. Treatments for anxiety include lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication. 

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a “condition that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” It's normal to feel afraid during these types of experiences, and afterward. But if you continue to feel stressed or frightened, that could be a sign of PTSD. 

Nearly 40 percent of parents with babies in the NICU experience PTSD in the first month after birth. And about 25 percent of parents who have or had babies in the NICU experienced PTSD up to one year after birth. 

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

People with PTSD may have:

  • Serious anxiety

  • Flashbacks of the event. A flashback is when you relive a traumatic event so that it feels like the event is happening again.

  • Nightmares

  • Physical responses (like a racing heartbeat or sweating) when reminded of the event

How is PTSD treated?

If you think you have PTSD, tell your healthcare provider. You can get treatment to make you feel better. The main treatments for PTSD are medications, therapy, or both. 

You can:

  • See a mental health professional. This is a person with training and education to help people with emotional or mental health conditions like PTSD. Mental health providers include social workers, therapists, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners. Ask your health care provider to help you find a mental health professional.

  • Talk with family and friends about how you’re feeling.