Easing the Ride on the NICU Roller Coaster

100_0543 by ceejayoz, on FlickrMany parents describe their NICU experience as a rollercoaster. The highs are really high and the lows can be especially low.

The wild ride can be very draining on parents, who often put their needs last as they focus on helping their new baby get well. As they juggle the needs of their hospitalized baby, jobs, the household and perhaps other children, it becomes clear why NICU parents are at high risk for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, divorce and good ‘ole burn out.

While nothing can completely take away the stress of having a NICU baby, there are things to help ease the ride:

  1. Take care of yourself. Simple things can add up! Stick to your normal “beauty routine,” even if it is simply taking a shower and washing your hair. Eat as healthy as possible, even if that means getting the grilled chicken instead of the hamburger at the fast food restaurant.
  2. Keep something normal. Enjoy a morning coffee with your partner? Keep doing that.  Do you always have pizza and a movie on Friday nights with your children? As much as possible, allow that to happen.
  3. It’s okay to take a vacation. While your heart will never leave the NICU, it is fine for your physical body to take a break. I’m not advocating a month long trip around the continent, but a day spent at the zoo with your older children or simply hanging around the house can be rejuvenating. Just make sure you are reachable if the staff needs to get in touch with you.
  4. Delegate. We all have THAT friend, that MacGyver of parenting who can organize the class party in five minutes flat and convince the most reluctant parent they were meant to make the organic, dairy-free, peanut-free cupcakes. Enlist her! Make her your go-to person. Everyone will be asking, “What can we do?” Have MacGyver keep track of and organize the volunteers to clean your house, watch your children, and help cook your meals. Have the inquiring friends and family contact her for updates on your baby so you don’t have to worry about responding to e-mails.
  5. People will want to help you. Let them. If your friend had a baby in the hospital, would you mind cooking them a meal or watching their children? Chances are that you would love to help them out. If you wouldn’t mind, then your friends won’t either.
  6. Let some things go. Before my preemie was born, I made a hot breakfast for my children every morning (no joke) and cooked all their snacks from scratch. After Puddin’ Pie’s birth, I tried to do it all and found out the hard way I could not. I bought some (healthy) cereal and granola bars, deciding that the few spare moments I had with them were better spent playing games than cooking eggs. It’s okay to let some things slide.
  7. Own your emotions. The NICU rollercoaster is powered by strong emotions. Own them. Acknowledge them. Deal with them in a healthy manner. It is okay to cry, scream, and mourn. I remember parking the car and just crying. I was still sad when I was done, but I felt 100 percent better. If there are more black days than sunny, if you find yourself consumed by negative thoughts, anxiety, thoughts of harming yourself or others, please contact a health care professional at once. Make sure your partner and the people around you are aware of the symptoms of post-partum depression and seek help. There nothing shameful about speaking to a professional. You are not a failure if you need help. (This doesn’t just apply to women who have given birth – men and adoptive parents can have PPD also.)
  8. Control what you can. If you are having problems with the staff, ask to speak to a patient advocate. You can also request certain nurses or therapists work with your baby – or not. If you have questions about procedures, ask. Keep a notebook where you jot down your questions, concerns and “who said what.” This will help you keep people and events straight.
  9. Network. The parents of other NICU babies, especially those born at a similar gestational age or with similar health concerns, are a wonderful resource. Some of my happiest memories of the NICU took place at night, laughing with the other parents in the lounge.

Yes, the NICU is a wild rollercoaster with peaks and valleys but with some (okay, a lot!) of help, you will make it to the end.

Photo Credit: 100_0543 by ceejayoz, on Flickr


For more information on the parenting a NICU infant and emotions, please read Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child by Deborah L Davis and Mara Stein.

About The Author: Laura

Walden Mommy: Life Behind the Red Front Door My NPN Posts

Laura is the mother to a herd of four small children, wife to her Engineer Husband, and owner of a pesky dog. She blogs about her life in the Midwest at Walden Mommy: Life Behind the Red Front Door.

8 Responses to Easing the Ride on the NICU Roller Coaster

  1. Laurie

    This was helpful and encouraging. I haven’t had a NICU baby, but many women around me have. I think that is my biggest fear–and perhaps every mothers. I pray I never have a NICU baby, but this helps me know how to help others, as well as how to prepare for the possibility.

  2. linda Mcnamara

    just wanted to let you know that the word ‘rollercoaster’ in the title is misspelled..(it is spelled rollarcoaster on this site) That being said, this is a wonderful site for families in this situation!

  3. Kelly Grindrod

    When my baby was in the NICU my midwife told me to be strong and take care of her because she was my baby and it was my job. It sounds like tough love but just hearing that gave me enormous strength to carry on. Because of that advice my husband and I tried to do all the diaper changes, nursing/supplementing, baths and comforting. The NICU nurses offered to do it all for us but it was empowering to provide the same care we would have at home. That said, my daughter was my first child so if I go through this again I’ll want someone at home taking care of my daughter so I can offer the same care to any future NICU baby.

  4. Libby Hunt  

    My friends have a son in the NICU — I’m sharing this article with them. thank you!

    • Laura

      Please do so! We also have another NICU article on her that was published in Oct or Nov. Please feel free to share that one as well.

  5. Cat

    This is such an excellent article. My daughter (who will be 2 in May) was born – completely by surprise – at 27 weeks. After planning a natural waterbirth at our birth center and figuring for a large, post-term baby (big late babies are common in my family), she threw us for a loop. However, we were lucky enough to have the support of an entire birth center full of midwives and OBs, fantastic nurses and doctors in the NICU, and excellent friends and family. The only thing I would add to this article is this: Mourning the birth you didn’t get to have is completely okay, even if your baby is doing super-well. I had a very hard time coming to terms with having had an emergency c-section and feeling like our daughter’s birth was “taken” from me, and felt guilty for mourning when she was doing so well (and continues to do so). And most people that haven’t had a preemie – and often, even partners – don’t understand those feelings.