Stress, birth defects, and the NICU: What you need to know

June 30, 2023

If your baby has a birth defect and is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), it's normal to feel 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 your baby home. 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.

If your baby has a birth defect and is in the NICU, you may feel:

  • Scared about your baby’s medical condition and what may happen to your baby 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, helpless and frustrated because you can’t do more to help your baby

  • Happy and prideful about the progress your baby makes and the problems your baby overcomes

Know that when your baby is in the NICU, there’s no “normal” way to feel. You and your partner may feel differently. Many families who have had a baby born with a birth defect share the same kinds of feelings that you and your partner have.

How can you manage stress while your baby is in the NICU?

You may feel overwhelmed if your baby has a birth defect and is in the NICU. It's important to take care of yourself.

Taking care of yourself can include:

  • Talking to a counselor.

  • Taking breaks from the NICU.

  • Connecting with other NICU families at NICU classes, in the family lounge or in the NICU hallway.

  • Asking friends and family for help.

  • Creating a regular schedule. 

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 2 to 3 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.