Mental Health for NICU Moms
Babies enter the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) for a variety of reasons—prematurity, low birth weight, respiratory issues, jaundice, and more. Whether your baby is in the NICU for a few days or for several months, this tends to be a universally challenging experience for new mothers. Increased levels of stress, worries about bonding, and concerns about baby’s health all put NICU moms at greater risk for postpartum mental health issues. Studies indicate that up to 70% of NICU mothers experience some level of postpartum depression (as compared to the national average, which is around 11%). Postpartum anxiety rates are likely even higher. If you’re a NICU mom and are struggling, the following suggestions may be helpful.
1) Allow yourself to grieve your ideal birth story. Many women whose babies enter the NICU report sadness over experiences such as not getting the elusive “golden hour” (in typical births, that first hour of the baby’s life, where mothers get a private hour to hold baby skin-to-skin, possibly attempt breastfeeding, and spend quiet time together). Perhaps you had been looking forward to this, or spending the first night together with baby, or waking up the next morning to your baby’s face. You have the right to grieve this experience and it is important that you allow yourself to feel these feelings.
2) Advocate for yourself (and your baby) in the NICU. Did you know that as your baby’s mother, you are actually part of your baby’s treatment team in the NICU? You have a say in your baby’s care, and you can spend as much time with your baby as you would like to. If for any reason you aren’t feeling this way, speak up. The NICU might feel scary at times, but it should always feel collaborative.
3) Spend at least an hour of skin-to-skin time with your baby each day. Research supports numerous benefits of skin-to-skin time for NICU moms, including increased feelings of attachment and bonding, decreased feelings of helplessness, and greater feelings of satisfaction with NICU care. NICUs have curtains that the staff will set up and close for you so that you have private time with your baby.
4) Take this time to learn. One benefit of having your baby in the NICU is that you get to learn from the nurses and doctors. Many first-time moms take comfort in the fact that they get to learn about feeding, changing, bathing, and sleep from the experts. Ask as many questions as you would like!
5) Engage in self-care. As much as you may want to spend as much time as possible either with your baby or thinking about your baby, it is essential that you also take care of yourself. This is especially important for moms who are still physically healing from their childbirth experiences. Take breaks throughout the day to do things like take walks, listen to music, and take baths. Ask for help during this time—lean on your partner, family, and friends for support.
6) Find ways to connect with other NICU moms. You are not alone! Many NICU moms report that talking with other mothers in the NICU is helpful and reduces feelings of loneliness. Some hospitals even have support groups just for NICU moms. Talking with others who have had similar experiences is often validating and comforting.
7) Consider therapy. Having a safe and contained space to process your feelings around your baby’s birth story, health, and NICU placement can be incredibly healing and reparative.
By: Michelle Jackson, Psy.D.
Baley, J. (2015). Skin-to-skin care for term and preterm infants in the neonatal ICU. Pediatrics, 136(3), 596-599.
Tahirkheli, N. N., Cherry, A. S., Tackett, A. P., McCaffree, M. A., & Gillaspy, S. R. (2014). Postpartum depression on the neonatal intensive care unit: current perspectives. International Journal of Women's Health, 6, 975–987.