Getting Through Your Newborn’s Time in the NICU: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Challenges

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Nobody begins the journey to parenthood planning to end up in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). And even if you had some advance warning that your newborn would need this kind of round-the-clock care, you certainly couldn’t have predicted the way the pandemic has unfolded. Many of us thought lockdowns and restricted visitation protocols would only last a few months, not drag on for over a year. No parent who’s dealing with a newborn in the NICU during COVID could have been prepared for what that would mean.

As if having a baby in the NICU weren’t stressful enough, COVID protocols in these units are necessarily extremely strict, because NICU babies are so medically fragile. But those protocols can still vary from hospital to hospital, and state to state. And given that we’re at an uncertain inflection point in the pandemic, with vaccination rates rising steadily even as contagious variants keep spreading, NICU parents may be wondering if those protocols will change depending on who in the family has been able to access a vaccine, or how infection rates change in the surrounding community.

But even with so much uncertainty, a few things are clear. Unfortunately, having a child in the NICU increases your chances of dealing with postpartum depression or other mental health issues, and adds enormous stress for both parents, including financial stress and isolation. Some parents in this position may also be dealing with post-surgery pain after a C-section, recovering from a traumatic birth, or struggling to forge a bond with their babies due to the unusual and stressful situation. These challenges can persist even after families are discharged and caring for their new babies at home — especially now, with COVID case rates still high in most of the country, caring for a baby who may still be medically fragile is an incredibly challenging and stressful endeavor.

As a NICU parent, your best defense against these mental health challenges is a strong, proactive offense. Know that issues like postpartum depression are much more common for parents in your situation, who are dealing with so much stress at once. Do whatever you can to build a supportive team around yourself, so that you’re not trying to shoulder this burden alone. Physical isolation may be safest for your family right now, but emotional isolation is dangerous.

Care for your baby.

If COVID protocols are limiting your contact with your new baby, or restricting visitations to one parent only, talk to your hospital care team about the importance of skin to skin contact and ongoing parental involvement in care. Look for creative solutions — if only one visitor is allowed at a time, can the other parent FaceTime? Seeing your baby is being well cared for may relieve some of your stress. Can you record the voices of family members singing songs or telling stories, and ask the nurses to play them for your baby when visits aren’t allowed?

Care for yourself.

Now more than ever, it’s so important for new parents to reach out and ask for help, and accept the help they’re offered. Be creative: think about ways that friends and family can drop off meals or other care packages, or otherwise provide physically distanced help, like house cleaning or other favors. Talk to your doctors about what’s safe now, and once you get home. Can vaccinated people hold your baby? Can they visit indoors if masked? Don’t hesitate to ask detailed questions so that you feel confident accepting any help that’s safe for your family. Think about what people can do for you while you’re spending time in the NICU, and how you can build your care team for when you bring your baby home.

Care for your family for the long term.

Given how stressful time in the NICU can be, it’s unfortunate but not surprising that the effects of this time can persist, for both you and your child. That’s why it’s so important to reach out for support as soon as you can. Look for ways to get peer support. In pre-pandemic times, NICU parents would often form deep bonds that could last for years. It may be more difficult to get to know your fellow NICU parents now, due to COVID protocols, but it’s worth putting in the effort to connect with people who know what you’ve been through. Look for peer support groups online, and ask nurses to help you connect with other parents. Think about getting mental health support for your whole family, both peer support and help from professional therapists.

Remember, mental health challenges are common for parents in your position. There’s no shame in asking for help — in fact, getting professional help from a therapist and peer support from parents like you will help you become the parent you need to be. If you want support or more connection while you ascertain your needs, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Lucid Lane.