Five Ways to Cope with NICU Anxiety
By Amy Boyes
In 2013, my life was turned upside down when I gave birth sixteen weeks prematurely. My daughter, Madeline, weighed just over a pound. She was barely twelve inches long. Her eyes were still fused together. Her skin was translucent and paper line. Madeline was hospitalized for sixteen weeks during which time she battled severe infections such as E. coli in her blood and many complications including a collapsed lung.
The Neonatology Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a frightening place for parents of micro-preemies. Coping with anxiety was a big challenge for me. Here are five suggestions for surviving the NICU:
1.) Stay busy. Although returning to work was the last thing I wanted to do, my maternity leave wasn’t scheduled until my original due date. I returned to work, howbeit with flexible hours, a week and a half after Madeline was born and then took a full maternity leave when she came home. Going back to work forced me to interact in a professional setting. I had to communicate with people who didn’t know about my personal stress. This helped me maintain a balanced view of my life and the lives of others.
2.) Simplify. Something has to give, especially if you are spending a couple of hours a day at the hospital on top of caring for other children or working. Give yourself permission to drop everything that isn’t essential. Volunteering, the book club—anything that doesn’t need to be done or is stressful might be trimmed. Using a grocery pick up service or even getting groceries delivered, for example, instead of grocery shopping is a great way to conserve energy and save time.
3.) Engage with people who understand. I had a friend, Sarah, who also had an extremely premature baby. Even though her experience was not an encouraging one, Sarah was a positive influence. She’d listen without dismissing my concerns. She never urged me to see the bright side nor forbid me from dwelling on negative things. She respected my feelings and outlook. I never felt I had to defend my positions or offer minute details. Sarah just let me talk and I always felt better after speaking with her.
4.) Find moments of peace and joy throughout the day. Even if it’s just enjoying a morning cup of coffee before the rest of the family is up, or buying tulips for the dinner table, allow yourself small moments of pleasure. No one has to give you permission and only you know what will make you feel better.
5.) Write. Even if it’s only a few lines a day, your impressions of the NICU experience will be a cherished family keepsake in the future. Medical charts only tell part of the story and recording your thoughts can be therapeutic. Pictures and videos are important, but they don’t capture the feelings in the room. How did you feel the first time you walked into the NICU? When your baby’s eyes opened? When you received the worst news? When you received the best? Write it down. You’ll feel the peace that comes from sorting out your feelings on paper.
Amy Boyes is the author of Micro Miracle: A True Story. Available from Signature Editions.
Micro Miracle is the moving account of a first-time mother whose expectations of childbirth and parenting are dramatically altered when she gives birth sixteen weeks prematurely. Unflinchingly honest, Micro Miracle is a true story of a medical triumph, yet it is also the loving tale of accepting the inevitable, fighting for the impossible, and honouring the most fragile of lives.