Sitting beside your baby in the NICU can bring an array of emotions for parents. Seeing your child hooked up to machines with wires attached to their body can be scary and overwhelming. The majority of babies are in the NICU due to premature birth (born prior to 37 weeks gestation), but babies can be admitted for other reasons such as breathing problems, low birth weight, heart conditions, and other complications. This experience can bring a variety of emotions that are normal yet often confusing.
1. Loss. Like any expecting parents, NICU parents dreamed of how the end of pregnancy would be, wrote a birth plan, and envisioned how the first few hours after birth would go. Mom looked forward to nursing her child, bringing home a healthy newborn, and starting life with the new addition to the family. When baby is in the NICU, the experience is very different. Moms may grieve the loss of the end of the pregnancy and may feel jealousy toward other mothers who carried their babies full-term and experienced a typical birth with big, healthy babies. It is frustrating to have to wait for the appropriate time to feed your baby, ask for help picking your baby up, and worry about germs when they come home due to a lower immunity. Feeling a sense of loss over these things is totally normal. Acknowledge your feelings and talk them through with a loved one or a professional counselor. In time, you can begin to set new dreams and goals for your family’s future.
2. Fear. Fear is a common response to having a baby in the NICU, and it is totally normal. Most parents do not have previous experience with a NICU and this creates a fear of the unknown. Parents worry their child will have long-term medical issues or that they are not capable of caring for them at home. The nurses and doctors are there to explain things to you and help you understand what is going on. Their goal is for you to feel comfortable caring for your child, both in the hospital setting and after when it is time to go home.
3. Guilt. Parents often question what they could have done differently in order to have a different outcome, a normal birth, and no NICU stay. Mothers, in particular, blame themselves for the situation. Feelings of guilt and blame are common when baby is in the NICU, but most premature babies are born early for unknown reasons. In the majority of cases, nothing could have been done to prevent premature birth. Discuss your feelings with your partner and with the medical staff in the NICU. They will help you work through your feelings and move forward as a family.
4. Feeling ‘on display.’ Many NICUs have open areas with multiple cribs. Parents can feel like they get little to no privacy. Curtains can do little to keep conversations private, and nursing moms can feel like they are out in the open. Nurses and doctors are in and out, and it can feel like they are ‘watching’ you all the time. While uncomfortable, parents should note that the NICU staff is watching to make sure you know how to care for your baby; they are there to help you. As a NICU parent, let family and friends know that you need some time alone to unwind, and they will be happy to give you the space you need.
5. Powerlessness. In the NICU, your baby will be surrounded by nurses and doctors who are caring for them. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the medical equipment. Ask the nurses to teach you how to work around the tubes and wires to change your baby’s diapers, take your baby’s temperature, and bathe your baby. Once you begin to be a part of your child’s care, you will begin to feel less helpless and more like a parent of a newborn.
6. Anger. Some parents may have feelings of anger that their child is in the NICU. It is easy to blame the doctors, NICU staff, or your partner for the situation. You may feel angry that someone else is taking care of your child or that you are in this situation in the first place. Anger can be expressed in different ways. One person may express their anger by acting rude, demanding, and vocal while another may retreat from the situation or into themselves resulting in a form of silent treatment. Try to let go of your anger and focus on you and your baby. Vent to a friend, write in a journal, or use exercise as an outlet. Feelings of anger take a lot of energy and you will need to save all of yours for taking care of yourself and your baby.
7. Feeling disconnected. When your baby is in the NICU for an extended amount of time, parents may feel a disconnect from the child. This can be a surprising and disturbing feeling, but it is both normal and common for NICU parents. Shortly after birth, baby may have been whisked away for medical care. Hours pass before baby and parents are reunited, and then it may take several more days before it is safe for parents to hold their child. Mom is often released from the hospital long before baby is allowed to join the family at home and during that time, the main caregivers are doctors and nursing staff. It is easy to see why parents would feel disconnected from their child. Be honest about your feelings and share them with the NICU staff. They will encourage you to become more involved with baby’s care and help you work through your feelings in a healthy way.
As a NICU parent, you may feel one or all of these emotions as you walk through this journey. Keep in mind that the NICU staff is there to help encourage and guide you and your family through this process. Many NICUs have social workers on staff to provide any resources you may need to make a smooth transition in bringing baby home. In time, baby will grow and thrive, and the NICU experience will be a thing of the past.
Sarah is a mother of six children, including triplets who were born six weeks premature. The triplets spent 16, 19, and 41 days in the NICU before joining their family at home.
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