When most of us get pregnant, we prepare the room and think about names. We fret about whether we will have a natural birth or forgo being a hero and befriend the anaesthesiologist. Few of us plan ahead for a premature delivery and the chaos it can bring.
According to the March of Dimes foundation, 1 in 9 babies are born premature each year. The foundation defines preterm birth as a baby born before 37 weeks gestation. As a social worker in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), I am very aware of the impact a premature delivery can have on the whole family. However, when my own baby was born at 26 weeks, l learned firsthand how important self-care was during this difficult time. Below are tips that I used to cope and that I recommend to others.
1. Rejuvenate in small bits. Depending on how complex your baby’s issues are, you may be in for a long haul in the NICU. You need to find simple ways to re-energize so that you can continue to attend to your baby and your other responsibilities. Some quick ideas to get your started are deep breathing breaks, using a short guided meditation app, a 10 to 20 minute walk around the block or a walk around the main floor of the hospital listening to your favorite music or nothing at all.
2. Accept support. When your child is in the NICU, it is not time to try and do it all. Your baby needs a sane parent. If loved ones are offering support, accept it. Make a list of things that would ease the pressure for you and share it with your family. Typical things are food preparation, transportation to and from the hospital, child care, grocery shopping and housekeeping.
3. Acknowledge your losses. With this pregnancy, you have lost carrying your child to term, holding your baby right after delivery and going home with your baby soon after delivery. Depending on the severity of your or your child’s situation, you may have experienced other losses as well. Taking the time to acknowledge your emotional pain around this experience does not negate what you are grateful for. You have to give yourself the space to feel both the good and the bad of this unexpected experience.
4. Admin time. Paperwork may be the last thing you want to deal with. However, there are usually forms that have to be completed whether related to your maternity leave or child care for your other children. It will be a weight off your shoulders to tackle a bit of it each day.
5. Help others. If you have been in the NICU for a few weeks, you may feel ready to reach out to other parents in the unit. Help them and yourself by checking in and sharing the little milestones reached and the frustrating setbacks.
6. Ban perfectionism. Accept that you will make mistakes. The staff will guide you and keep your baby safe. You will probably feel clumsy the first time you change your baby’s diaper or try to put your newborn to your breast. Cut yourself some slack and keep learning and trying new skills to care for them.
7. Journal it out. Sometimes you just don’t feel like talking, but you still need to sort through your feelings. Journaling is a great way to process what you are feeling and to capture your family’s journey in the NICU.
8. Listen to your body. It is so easy to push through fatigue and fear and drive yourself into the ground. If your body is quietly telling you to slow down, don’t wait until it is screaming at you and you have no choice. Take a break from the hospital. I know this is easier said than done. However, if your baby is stable, take a day off so that you don’t burn out.
9. Couple time. If you are in a relationship, squeeze in simple things you can do together. You could take a break between feeds and go for a walk or a meal. You can text supportive messages to one another. Also, accept that each of you may cope with this situation differently. Don’t hold it against your partner for not being in the same emotional place as you are.
10. Squeeze in play. This may sound ridiculous and, to be fair, it may not always fit with your baby’s status. But when your baby is stable and nursing staff give the thumbs up, consider reading or singing to your child. When you are away from the hospital, consider using play as a way to connect with your partner or other children. Cards or a board game are low-energy ways to squeeze it in.
11. Talk to a professional. Most NICUs have a social worker who can provide emotional and practical support. Another option is to find out if you or your partner’s company has an Employee Assistance Program. You can get free professional counseling by phone, online or in person through this service. Your family doctor may also be a good resource for connecting you to a therapist.
12. Become part of the team. For most parents, the NICU is an intimidating place. However, you are your child’s consistent caregiver. Make notes about things that you observe about your baby. Write down your questions and concerns, and discuss them with the staff involved with your baby. As you gain more knowledge about your baby’s condition, you will become a more confident part of your child’s team.
13. Sleep when you can. Between expressing breast milk, meeting with hospital staff, getting the baby’s room ready and other responsibilities, sleep can feel like a faraway place you never get to travel to. However, sleep impacts your milk supply and is a buffer for postpartum depression. So nap at home, or in your parked car or in the parent lounge.
Try incorporating the suggestions that you feel will make the biggest difference. Set reminders for yourself so you remember to follow through with your self-care plan throughout the week. Despite this being a difficult time, using these tips can make a difference with your ability to cope.
Karyn Robinson-Renaud, MSW, RSW, is a freelance writer and a neonatal intensive care social worker. She lives in the Toronto area with her husband and daughter.
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