NICU Parents and Mental Health
Please know that you are not alone if you are struggling with your feelings; many NICU parents report feeling depressed, anxious or highly stressed, and these feelings can persist even after discharge. Some units will ask parents to fill out a questionnaire called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale; this simple tool helps parents identify and talk about feelings and also helps identify the best way forward. You may also see this same questionnaire at your doctor’s office or later at your child’s paediatrician’s office. It is becoming part of a routine conversation about mental health.
We know that all parents, not just NICU parents, can experience mental health issues after the birth of a baby. It is also important to remember that new fathers can also experience changes to their mental health in the postpartum. There are many postpartum mental health diagnoses that are common to NICU parents, including postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic delivery experience.
Any thoughts of harming yourself or someone else must be taken very seriously. Seek immediate medical attention by contacting 911 or going to an emergency room.
If you are worried or have any questions regarding the above, speak to your partner or another trusted friend. Speak to your healthcare provider (i.e. obstetrician or family doctor) or a member of your baby’s healthcare team (i.e. nurse, social work, neonatologist) if you wish to discuss this further.
Everyday Self Care
In order to tend to your baby’s needs, you need to be in good physical and emotional health as well. Sometimes, we are so focused on our babies that we lose touch with how we are doing. It is important that we see taking care of ourselves as a central part of being a parent.
Consider these tips:
- Allow time and space for your thoughts and feelings as they arise. Give yourself permission to feel overwhelmed and cry.
- Tap into previously-established coping mechanisms. How have you coped with difficult times in the past? Perhaps this is the most difficult thing that has happened to you and so you need to explore what is effective for you.
- Consider creative outlets such as journaling or blogging. Websites like CarePages can help you get started.
- Establish a routine. When we are overwhelmed, establishing a structure to our days can help orient us and give us a sense of control.
- Explore your spiritual side. Many hospitals have Spiritual and Religious Care resources including on-site chapels, synagogues, or Muslim prayer rooms. Multifaith chaplains can be a wonderful source of support. You could also explore online mindfulness resources; this article was written specifically for NICU parents.
- Get rest wherever possible. Lack of sleep impacts your ability to cope.
- Establish the balance that works for you with visitors. It may be important to limit visitors to protect your rest periods.
- Accept help from others. Assert yourself to ensure that the help you receive is in fact the help you need. Websites like CareCalendar can help organize support for you.
- Consider the benefits of nutritious eating, fresh air, and exercise.
- Connect with peers; people who are in or have been in the same boat can be great sources of support.
Thanks to Kelly Polci, social worker at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, for this article.