Self Care While on a NICU Journey

So you’ve found yourself at the doors to this place called the neonatal intensive care unit. The neonatal ICU. The NICU. Maybe this is your first time stepping (or being wheeled) through these doors, maybe its your second, maybe these doors seem more familiar to you lately than your own front door. Regardless, walking into or out of the NICU rarely comes without a landslide of emotions.

As you dive head first into life in the NICU, learning the sounds, machines, and terminology of this medical environment, learning your new baby and figuring out what bonding looks like in this setting, it is so easy to get caught up in aiming the focus solely on your baby and his or her health and needs. However, the most important thing you can do for your baby at this point is to make sure that you fully take care of yourself. There is nothing but truth in the saying, “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” Below are a few ways we’ve found to focus on caring for yourself while on your NICU journey:

  1. Dont forget your own BASIC NEEDS: sleep, eat, drink. Although the NICU diet isn’t a common diet fad you’ll find circulating the magazines, it consists of “slept a total of 3 hours last night (maybe), had a granola bar for breakfast, was going to eat lunch but got caught up at a care time, dinner was a bag of chips scarfed down in the parent lounge so I could get back, had a few sips of my water bottle today but sat it down and forgot about it” and some bonus points for “couldn’t get past my anxiety-induced stomach ache to deal with any food today.”   You WILL waste away if you are not intentionally providing for your own basic needs. And if you’re new to the NICU and trying to heal from birth or trying to establish/maintain a breastmilk supply, proper nourishment is crucial for your health. Keep a bag full of snacks you enjoy eating at the NICU, keep a water bottle close by and always full, and make sure you don’t skip meals.
  2. Recognize your grief for what it is and let yourself FEEL it. This likely wasn’t the birth you imagined, wanted, planned for, etc. It’s not how you imagined the hours, days, weeks after birth would look or feel. Maybe you’ve spent days in the hospital already, holding on as long as possible before giving birth to your baby to increase their health while your own declines, maybe you went in for a normal check up thinking you had weeks or months before you’d meet your baby only to end up unexpectedly meeting him or her hours later from outside a little glass box. Maybe you’re still waiting to hold your little one for the first time. The NICU is rarely planned for or hoped for when imagining a birth and when you find yourself there, IT IS OK TO GRIEVE THE BIRTH AND POSTPARTUM PERIOD YOU ALWAYS IMAGINED. It doesn’t mean you’re not thankful for your baby’s life, for the chance to get to take him or her home one day, that he or she is improving already. Don’t compare your journey to another’s and think its not ok to hurt or be sad or feel the feels because it could be worse. The thing is, it COULD be worse. But it could also be better. Allowing yourself to grieve and feel your emotions lets you deal with things as they come instead of stuffing it all down until you break.
  3. Do at least one thing for yourself that you enjoy each day without guilt. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. Read a book or magazine. Do yoga or some other exercise if that’s your thing. Journal. Go to a restaurant you love and eat a meal you enjoy. Take a nap. Take a shower even. Whatever you enjoy doing, do it. But, here’s the important (and maybe hardest) part, do it WITHOUT FEELING GUILTY. It is not anyone’s fault you and your baby are on this journey. It is still very much ok for you to feel happy and enjoy things outside of your baby.
  4. Spend time outside of the NICU. Momma, daddy, whoever you are in this journey, get out of there and catch your breath. Your baby is not where you long for them to be but they are in the safest place, surrounded by caretakers who generally care about their wellbeing as well. It is necessary for you to take some time for yourself. The NICU is overwhelming. It is full of alarms, unfamiliar medical equipment, medical professionals coming and going often, its full of the unknown. Studies have shown that it is a traumatic place for parents. It is absolutely important for you to allow yourself a break from the constant trauma. Take a walk outside on a nice day. Have coffee or dinner with your significant other or a friend or even alone. Spend a night in your own bed.
  5. Don’t be afraid to seek and accept help- from family, friends or a professional.  There is so much strength in recognizing you are overwhelmed, exhausted, and at a breaking point in your journey. Having a good support system when you are wading through life in the NICU can really make a difference in the experience. When family or friends offer specific help, accept it. Let them help ease the stress of meeting some of your basic needs like food or sleep. Let a close family member or friend to sit with your baby so you can take a break for a bit. Find a friend you know is a good listener (even better if you have one who has experienced the NICU before) to share your emotions, thoughts, fears, etc. with. Reach out to other parents in the NICU around you, create a community of peers who know exactly what you’re dealing with.   Its also important here to mention the increased risks of developing postpartum depression, anxiety and PTSD that having a baby in the NICU brings. If you begin to feel any of the signs or symptoms of these, speak to your OB or primary care doctor about ways to help care for yourself mentally. Whether it be through therapy or medication, there is nothing that indicates strength more than recognizing the need for help and seeking it out. Your baby needs a healthy (physically and mentally) parent just as much as they need a present one.

Giving birth is never a walk in the park. Giving birth unexpectedly, having a child prematurely, is the beginning of a rollercoaster ride. It’s that first big drop that drops your stomach and steals your breath and leaves you wondering if you’re going to lose your lunch. Sometimes it’s a quick, relatively smooth ride and other times its breaking records for world’s longest, bumpiest, twistiest rollercoaster. No matter what type of ride your on, it’s up to you to buckle your seat belt and hold on tight. So if you’re reading this and you’re in the middle of a wild coaster and not sure which way is up, take a deep breath friend. Ask yourself this, will you take a minute to fill up your cup so that you are full enough to continue pouring over into your sweet little one? That is the one thing you can control in this journey. Fill it up.


Written by: Lyndsey Lewis, Early Bird Foundation, Inc.

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