Taking Care of Your Mental Health While Your Baby Is in the NICU

July 27, 2022

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) provides around-the-clock care to sick or preterm babies. If your baby requires NICU care, he or she may be hooked up to machines or placed in an incubator. This can be an overwhelming experience for new parents. In fact, research shows that having a baby in the NICU can negatively affect the mental health of new moms and their families. These issues may be even more common among people of color.

Black and African-American women are nearly 50 percent more likely to have a preterm baby and more likely to have a low birthweight baby than other women in the United States. In turn, these women have a higher risk of having anxiety, depression, and stress than women who gave birth to full-term babies. In fact, up to 54% of Hispanic women and up to 28% of Black women in the United States experience pregnancy-related depression.

Families of preterm infants often report that having a baby in the NICU limits their ability to bond with the baby and develop a caregiving routine. These feelings of detachment can make existing mental health conditions worse and can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What you need to know about PTSD

Going through labor and delivery can make you feel helpless and lead to PTSD, especially if medical problems arise. In fact, nearly 9% of new moms have PTSD.

The symptoms of birth-related PTSD include:

  • Vivid flashbacks or nightmares about the trauma
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the birth
  • Not feeling connected to your life

And, you’re at higher risk of developing PTSD if:

  • You have a baby in the NICU
  • You had an unexpected C-section (also known as Cesarean birth)
  • Forceps were used to deliver your baby
  • You felt powerless or unsupported during the delivery
  • You suffered a previous traumatic event
  • You are injured during delivery

How you can care for your baby in the NICU

Despite your baby’s medical issues, there still are ways that you can be part of your baby’s care while they’re in the NICU. You may be able to hold your baby, even if they are connected to medical equipment. If you can’t hold them, ask the nurse how you can touch and comfort them. Then, when your baby is ready, you can feed them, bathe them and change their diapers. You also may be able to take their temperature and help weigh them. It’s OK if you feel nervous about doing these things. Don’t worry: your baby’s nurses will show you what to do.

What to tell people about your baby’s condition

Friends, family members, and co-workers may ask how your baby is doing. How much you tell people about your baby’s condition is your choice. You can tell them as much or as little as you want. If you’re not sure exactly what to say, just say that your baby is in intensive care and you’re taking things day by day. If you don’t want to talk, you can thank people for their concern but tell them that you don’t want to talk about it right now.

Getting help

March of Dimes’ My NICU Baby® App can help you find answers, tools and support, so you can focus on your baby during what is often a difficult time. Learn about NICU staff, policies, equipment and terminology to help you advocate for the best care for your baby.

If you think are experiencing a mental health issue, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. You don’t have to suffer in silence. There are many treatments available to you, including:

  • Prescription medicine
  • Therapy with a mental health specialist
  • Alternative treatments, like acupuncture (tiny needles inserted into key points of your body)
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches you how to look at negative thoughts in a different way
  • Mindfulness techniques to help you focus your thoughts and feelings in the moment
  • Online or in-person support groups

If you’re ever worried about hurting yourself or your baby, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.