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How To Cope With NICU Depression, Because It's Such A Stressful Time

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Having a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a devastating experience. When you imagine the first moments of your baby's life, you dream of lovingly staring into each other's eyes and holding their warm, soft body tightly against yours — not seeing them whisked away in a flurry of fear and drama. But for reasons completely out of your control, NICU stays are relatively common, and they can put a huge mental strain on moms and dads. If you're trying to understand how to cope with depression when your baby is in the NICU, you should know that there are lots of resources available to you.

I know first-hand how terrifying, stressful, and lonely a NICU stay can be. My son spent the first 22 days of his life in the NICU, nine of them hooked up to a breathing tube that kept him alive. I met parents who breezed in and out in a couple of days, others whose little ones would spend the better part of a year there. The length of the stay didn't seem to have much to do with how moms and dads coped, however. Dr. Anthony Orsini, Vice-Chairman of the Department of Neonatology at Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, FL, says emotional upheaval is just par for the course in the NICU. “It’s very common for parents of babies in the NICU to feel depression. They feel that somehow they did something wrong, that maybe the baby was born premature because of something they did.”

It's not the parent's fault, of course, but it can be difficult to shake the feeling that it is. That can be one of the many issues that lead a parent to become depressed. And while it's natural to want to focus all your energy on your child's recovery, it's important to also take time to deal with what you're feeling. Orsini, who also runs a program called "It's All in the Delivery" to train hospital staffers on treating patients with compassion, says there's one thing he wants moms and dads to realize about their NICU experience: "Not only is the baby our patient, but the parent is our patient, too." If you're struggling to deal with everything or a single thing, doesn't hesitate to reach out — your baby needs you to be your happiest, healthiest self.

Here are 7 tips for dealing with depression when your newborn's in the NICU.

1. Lean On Your Support Network

Courtesy Kristina Johnson

NICU stays are especially challenging if you've got other kids, because you can't be in two places at once. When you're at the hospital, you feel like you should be at home, and when you're home, you feel like you should be at the hospital. You still have to worry about mundane things like cooking meals, doing laundry, and pumping breastmilk. It's all too easy to slip into a funk, feeling like you just aren't capable of handling everything on your plate. That's when NICU social worker Doreen Martinez of Cohen Children's Medical Center says moms need to lean on their loved ones. “We try to encourage the parents to reach out to family members. This is time when you need to say, ‘Hey I really need help.’ Don’t try and be so strong that you end up worse off,” Martinez says, “People are very willing to help, but they need to ask for the help.”

2. Stay Involved In Your Baby's Care

Parents whose babies end up in the NICU can wind up feeling depressed simply because they feel so helpless. Seeing their newborn hooked up to all sorts of monitors, machines, wires, and tubes can make a mom or dad feel like there's little they can do to contribute to their child's well-being. But Dr. Orisini says it's important to remember that's not the case, and you are an invaluable part of your baby's recovery. "If your baby's not too sick, you can kangaroo and hold them, you can help the nurses take care of the baby and help calm them down."

3. Get Counseling

Sometimes, just speaking to someone who can reassure you that what you're feeling is very common can be a huge help. HuffPost reported that perhaps as many as 70 percent of NICU moms experience some depression (and let's not forget that even if your child wasn't in the NICU, you could still be dealing with it, because those postpartum hormones are raging). Martinez says your NICU social worker can typically offer you counseling right at the bedside, and larger hospitals like hers are able to connect moms to even more services. "They will do one-on-one counseling, they will do couples counseling, they'll involve the partner."

4. Cry It Out

Postpartum hormones and the stress and pain of being separated from your baby while they're sick can combine to just bring you to your knees. While you might feel like you need to put on a brave face for the world, it's important to let all those emotions out. "I cried my eyes out every single time I left for the night," a NICU mom named Rochelle told me. Personally, I'm not sure how I managed to avoid getting into any car accidents during my son's hospital stay, because I'd use my driving time as crying time. It was probably more than a little dangerous to be flying down the highway with tears blurring my eyes, but I badly needed the emotional catharsis.

5. Don't Be Ashamed To Ask For Medication

Sometimes, there's just no way to handle your emotions and everything you're going through as a NICU mama without something to stabilize your mood. If you feel like you need anxiety medication or an anti-depressant, you should have absolutely no shame about talking to a doctor about it (just the opposite in fact — you should be proud of yourself for taking that step). Mom Sarah Wade told me that she ended up on Wellbutrin following her son's premature birth at just 26 weeks, which led to a 93-day NICU stay. "Best thing I ever did for myself," she says of the medication. "Sometimes half the battle is realizing when it's time to ask."

6. Take Breaks When You Need To

To this day I can still remember all the aches and pains that spread throughout my body from sitting on the insanely uncomfortable chairs in my son's NICU for hours at a time. I can also recall the mind-numbing boredom from the stretches of time when he was intubated and sedated, meaning I couldn't touch or interact with him in any way. Sitting there all day was agonizing and incredibly disheartening, yet I would feel like a terrible mother for even considering leaving his side. Taking those short breaks can really help you reset and recharge, however. "Going for little walks and having a snack is good," a NICU mom named Julie says. "When you're home... you will not be sitting at the bedside. You will eat and be doing doing things, so it's really no different. Take care of you."

7. Keep Yourself Busy

Courtesy Kristina Johnson

When you're sitting in the NICU, the long hours of doing nothing while your baby sleeps can lead your mind down some dark paths. It's so easy to start thinking negative thoughts — what could I have done to prevent winding up here? Is my baby going to be OK? What if he takes a downturn? —and make yourself feel even worse than you already do. I needed something to focus my mind on when my son was in the hospital, and for me it was crochet. It took up just enough brain power that I couldn't let my mind wander with depressing thoughts, but was also simple enough that I could set it down whenever I wanted to check on my son or speak to a nurse. The repetitive movements of twisting and turning my hook were weirdly soothing to me, and I can still pick it up in times of stress and instantly feel calmer.

As many parents know, the stress of a NICU stay doesn't necessarily end when you're discharged. If depression or anxiety follow you home, keep using these same strategies, and keep your doctor informed.

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.