A NICU stay can be daunting, scary and traumatic, so there are a few things that are important for all of us to know. Because it could happen to any of us, or it could happen to a friend - approximately, 1 in 7 babies are admitted to the NICU in the UK and the US. So even if you haven’t been through it, the likelihood of you knowing someone who has or will go through it are high.
Babies can either be in the NICU due to being born prematurely (before 37 weeks) or due to illness when they’re at term. But even though the statistics are high, parents are often unprepared for having their baby in the neonatal unit. I know I was.
1. You might not know what it all means when you’re in there
Being thrown into a neonatal intensive care unit can feel overwhelming. The beeping, the machines… it can feel like a different world, full of medical jargon that you don’t understand. Especially if you’ve been through a birth which may have been sudden or traumatic.
Know that it’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to say that you don’t understand. It’s OK to ask the same questions repeatedly until you do understand. It’s OK to advocate for your baby and for yourself. It’s OK to challenge things that you don’t think are right.
2. You must drink, rest and look after yourself
When your baby is in the NICU, it can feel like you need to be at their bedside 24/7. Guilt can creep in at the idea of leaving them, but inevitably, you may have to go home, which is incredibly difficult.
Use the time when you’re at home to rest in whatever way you can. Drink water, eat, pause in between needing to pump (if you are) and do whatever you need to do to build up your strength and to recover from your birth. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so the more you’re able to look after yourself, the more you’re able to be there for your baby.
3. You will spend time in fight, flight or freeze mode
When you’re in high stress situations, your body will react through a fight, flight or freeze response. You might notice your heart beating faster, your legs turning to jelly, a knot in your stomach, or a feeling of tension.
Or you might notice a numb feeling, like you’re wading through water and you’re not really taking in what’s happening. You don’t get to pick which response you use as a coping mechanism, but know that whichever way you feel, that is totally valid. It’s a way of your brain trying to protect yourself.
4. Try to accept help from friends and family
I get it, it’s difficult when you receive that text message that says “let me know if I can do anything to help”. Your mind is all over the place, and making decisions and asking for help will probably feel like too much. But remember that it’s OK to ask for help, and it’s actually necessary to enable you to be able to look after yourself and your baby fully.
Friends and family can step in to make you meals, drive you to the hospital, look after pets or other children, or help out with general life admin. To make things even easier for you, here’s a full list of ideas of what other people can do to support you when you’re in the NICU - so you don’t even have to think about it!
5. Sometimes you don’t process what has happened until you’re home
Your first experiences of motherhood is probably not going to be how you expected. Often you’re not able to hold your babies for hours, days, sometimes weeks - an incubator replaces your arms where you imagined and longed for your baby to be.
But when you’re in the NICU, you’re on autopilot. You do whatever you need to do to get by. So when you’re home, when it feels more relaxed, the emotion, anxiety, and trauma might hit you. You might feel that you’re alone in the sadness, the guilt, and the grief but you are not. You can always reach out for the support of other NICU mamas on Peanut, too.
6. It’s more than OK to ask for help
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in parents who have been through the NICU is as high as 53% among mothers, and the likelihood of experiencing postnatal depression and anxiety is higher too.
It’s so important to look after yourself, be aware of the symptoms, and talk to your healthcare provider if you’re struggling. You would seek help if you had ongoing physical issues after birth, so looking after your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Remember that.