Taking care of your mental health while your baby is in the NICU

April 8, 2020

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the way daily life looks for all of us. For so many families, these are uncertain and stressful times. Having a baby in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) can cause additional stress. You may be worried about your baby’s health, family’s health, job, or finances. During this time, families in the NICU may need special support to cope and to have good mental health.

Life in the NICU

There may be new policies and practices in the NICU during this time. Talk with the NICU staff to keep up-to-date on your NICU’s rules.

  • Ask the NICU staff about family visit policies. Each hospital has their own rules and policies to keep families, babies and staff safe. When spending time with your baby wash your hands thoroughly and follow any hospital or NICU policies about wearing special protective equipment, like a mask or a gown.
  • Have a visitation plan. Develop a schedule with your partner for spending time with your baby. Each hospital has specific rules about who and how many people can be in the NICU at a time. Ask the NICU staff about the rules and make sure you follow them. Try to take time to rest and practice self-care when you’re away from the hospital.
  • Ask about breastfeeding. Many moms can still breastfeed or express breast milk for babies in the NICU. Talk  with NICU staff about breastfeeding policies and if you need to wear a mask or any special protective equipment. If you are expressing breast milk, wash your hands thoroughly before touching the pump and bottle parts, and clean all parts after each use.
  • Ask how you can bond with your baby. Talk with the NICU staff about how you can safely bond with and care for your baby. Skin-to-skin or kangaroo care may still be possible. Depending on the NICU policies, you may be able to sing, talk, read, or gently touch your baby.
  • Practice social distancing. This means being separated from another person by at least 6 feet. This helps stop the spread of COVID-19. Practice social distancing any time you are outside of the NICU and only leave your house for essential needs. Inside the hospital, practice social distancing with other adults as much as possible.
  • Use the March of Dimes My NICU Baby® App The app provides answers, tools and support, so you can focus on your baby during what is often a difficult time.

Your health and wellbeing is important during this time

It may be hard to keep calm when there is so much information about COVID-19 flashing across our televisions and social media channels.  New restrictions and rules are changing our daily life. This can make you feel isolated, confused, or frustrated. You may need more support now than ever. Taking care of yourself is the best thing you can do for you and your baby during this time.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Take breaks from watching or listening to news stories about COVID-19 or going on social media.
  • Take breaks from the NICU. It’s okay to make time for yourself and your family.
  • Keep in touch with people you care about and who care about you. Staying connected with friends and family is important. Call, text, use social media or communication tools like FaceTime or Zoom.
  • Talk  to someone about your feelings. This may be someone from the NICU staff, a social worker, or your religious or spiritual leader. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to someone other than your family and friends. Many mental health providers are providing telephone and telehealth appointments during this time.
  • It’s okay to ask for help from your friends and family. Many of them want to help, but they may not know how. They can do things like having a meal or household supplies delivered to your home.  Older children can help with meal prep and chores around the house.
  • Help your older children cope.  Calm their fears and tell them what’s going on in words they understand. Talk to them about COVID-19 and how it’s affecting your family. Speak with NICU staff about ways siblings can feel part of the baby’s care if they can’t be at the hospital.
  • Keep a routine. Every day, take a shower, eat healthy foods and regular meals, drink plenty of water and get a good night’s sleep. If taking a shower is not possible, washing your face and combing your hair can help.

Feeling sad and worried

Having a baby in the NICU can be an emotional time for parents. You may feel sad and worried. Lots of NICU parents feel this way. The stress of having a baby in the NICU may be increased by the public health emergency and possible restrictions on being with your baby. 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 or the NICU staff.

Know you are not alone. Reach out, share your story and talk to other new moms online.

Visit marchofdimes.org to learn more.