5 Things to Do As a Parent in the NICU
The NICU comes with continuous traumatic, stressful experiences. From your baby’s vulnerable health, to other babies coding, and a steady stream of stressful news about your baby’s health and prognosis. That’s all after a delivery that may also have been traumatic! These continuous experiences can lead to guilt, fear, and helplessness. Guilt - that you’ve somehow failed your baby. Fear - that another stressful experience or bad news will soon occur. Helplessness - that you have no important role amongst a team of medical experts. These feelings are challenging to manage. They may also contribute to posttraumatic stress. In our essential course, we identify signs of posttraumatic stress, anxiety and depression, and provide you with concrete tools to help you manage the rollercoaster of emotions in the NICU.
Here are 5 things that you can do now and throughout your child’s NICU stay to take care of yourself, promote a lasting bond with your baby, alleviate stress, reflect on your growth, and ultimately heal.
1. Engage in caregiving tasks. Feeling a bond with your baby is not often automatic. That is true in and out of the NICU, with preterm and full term infants. Bonding is about caring. Even if you can’t hold your baby or feed them right now, you can still engage in caregiving tasks! You can sing, talk or read to your baby, provide containing touch, gaze at your baby, put photos of you in your baby’s isolette, and much more! Our essential course outlines and provides demonstrations of specific caregiving tasks you can do for and with your baby IN the NICU and even when you’re unable to visit. Love is not a state, it’s an ACTION! So get practicing with any caregiving task your baby can manage right now.
2. Journal. Write. Reflect. The main goal/point here is to reflect. You can do this by writing in a journal, recording milestones in our Baby Diary (see our Essential Course), setting aside sufficient time each day to mentally reflect, or even writing letters to your baby. We suggest journaling because writing down your experience has shown to have extremely positive impacts on trauma processing. Your thoughts can and will run wild when they’re inside your brain. It’s extremely beneficial to your wellbeing to give your thoughts somewhere to land.
You might be asking yourself, “What would I even write down?” Well, you can start by writing whatever comes to mind, which is called free association. If this feels too challenging or open-ended, you can also start by asking yourself each day, “What did I notice was different about my baby today? How have they grown/changed over the last day, week, month? How have I changed or grown?” These questions can give you perspective when you are feeling bogged down by negative news or your baby’s non-linear growth trajectory.
3. Talk to your NICU neighbors regularly. You will not necessarily be understood by your friends who do not have NICU babies. They may be able to provide you with the validation and emotional support you’re craving. But, NICU parents right next to your baby’s isolette have a shared experience to you. They are living through what you’re living through. Your experiences, of course, will be different, but you are coming to the same place each day, which can be normalizing. Talk to your NICU neighbor! Ask how things have been for them. Try your best to listen and share - balance the two. You’d be surprised how comforting it feels to know that there are like-minded people like you who are experiencing similar levels of stress/anxiety.
4. Attend rounds + advocate for your baby. You may feel helpless or useless in the sea of medical providers on your baby’s care team. They are helping your baby grow and become healthy enough to leave the NICU. However, YOU know your baby best because you are the person who is paying most attention to who they are–their unique cues for food, warmth, diaper change, comfort, stress, etc. You are the person who can thus communicate with the medical experts if you feel in your gut that something may be off with your baby. YOu are your baby’s #1 advocate in the NICU and after the NICU. So, it is important that you attend rounds and speak up on behalf of your baby! Rounds are a time when all of your baby’s providers meet to discuss your baby’s last 24 hours and next 24 hours. You can start by attending, listening, asking questions, and then eventually speaking when you have something important to say. This may feel scary, and that’s okay! Though, don’t let your fear/worry prevent you from attending rounds and advocating with your care team.
5. Write a trauma narrative. This may be done with a therapist but can also be done on your own, if you feel able to manage the intensity of your emotions that may arise. Trauma narratives are a first-hand (first-person), present-tense account of what happened that led to your baby’s NICU stay and beyond. Writing your trauma account in extreme detail (thoughts, feelings, sounds, smells, colors, etc.) can be extremely healing for posttraumatic stress. It can provide a sense of groundedness in your physical body while also helping you challenge unhelpful assumptions/interpretations you have made since the trauma first occurred (e.g., “I caused my baby’s prematurity). Seeing your experience on paper (typed or printed) can allow you to look AT your traumatic experience rather than FROM it. When we’re STUCK in the trauma, looking FROM it, we are in a state of hypervigilance and behaving based on unhelpful beliefs we’ve formed about ourselves (“I am a bad parent”), others (“My baby is angry with me”; “The medical providers don’t care about me or my baby”) or the world (“The world is an unsafe place.”). Writing a trauma narrative can give you back your power over your delivery/NICU experience rather than it having power over you.
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