Having a baby in the NICU is stressful. Very stressful. When a baby is born prematurely, the roller coaster ride of the NICU experience is emotionally, physically and mentally taxing for parents.
Premature birth is the birth of a baby before 37 weeks of pregnancy. One in 10 babies is born prematurely, or 15 million babies globally! Of these babies, one million will die. Babies who survive often have lifelong health problems such as cerebral palsy, vision and hearing loss, intellectual disabilities and learning problems. Just knowing these statistics provokes anxiety and worry in parents. If you are a parent with a baby in the NICU, observing the ups and downs of your baby’s progress day to day can be heart wrenching and particularly wearing.
Depression more common in the NICU
Studies have shown that “in the month after delivery, parents of preemies are significantly more depressed and anxious than parents of term babies,” according to Linden, Paroli and Doron MD in the book Preemies – The Essential Guide for Parents of Premature Babies, 2nd Edition. The authors report that “Besides depression and anxiety, they (parents) were more apt to feel hostile, guilty, and incompetent at parenting and to isolate themselves socially…An early delivery is itself so scary that even many parents of healthy preemies react with shock and anxiety.” Given the stress associated with seeing your baby in the hospital, and the ups and downs of slow progress – it is not hard to imagine that depression is seen more often in parents of preemies than in parents of children born at term.
Baby blues and postpartum depression
Many new mothers experience the “postpartum blues” or the “baby blues.” Baby blues are feelings of sadness you may have three to five days after having a baby. These feelings most likely are caused by all the hormones in your body right after pregnancy. You may feel sad or cranky, and you may cry a lot. By about 10 days after the baby’s birth, the baby blues should go away. If they don’t, tell your health care provider who will determine if you may have postpartum depression (PPD), which lasts longer and is more serious than baby blues.
Signs of PPD include feeling tired all the time, having no interest in your usual activities, gaining or losing weight, changing your eating habits, having trouble sleeping or concentrating, and thinking about suicide or death. If you have five or more of these signs and they last for two weeks or longer, you may have PPD. Sometimes mothers of preemies develop postpartum depression as a result of the severe stress and anxiety experienced by having a premature baby. Even fathers of preemies can become depressed.
What can help?
There are many ways to feel better. Treatments for depression may include all or some of the following: healthy eating, regular sleep and exercise, talking with friends, family or a professional counselor/therapist, lowering your stress by taking time to relax and avoiding alcohol. In addition, your health care provider may give you medication specifically designed to help with depression.
Talking to other parents who have gone through the NICU journey can be very helpful. The parents on the March of Dimes’ online community, Share Your Story, “talk” to one another and share their experiences. It is a comforting and supportive community, where all NICU families are welcomed.
When will you feel better?
The length of time a parent feels down, anxious or depressed can vary, and may depend on the health of your baby, and the length of NICU stay. But usually, parents of preemies begin to feel more balanced as their baby grows, and “by the end of the baby’s first year, their psychological distress, on average, has been found to be similar to those of mothers of term babies” according to the Preemies book. But, each baby and NICU stay is unique, so each parent’s journey to feeling better is unique.
Having a baby in the NICU is extraordinarily stressful and difficult. You need to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of your baby. It is important to be aware of the signs or symptoms of depression and to speak with your health care provider if you have any concerns at all.
The sooner you seek help, the sooner you will feel better.
Note: This post is part of the weekly series Delays and disabilities – how to get help for your child. It was started in January 2013 and appears every Wednesday. While on News Moms Need, select “Help for your child” on the menu on the right side to view all of the blog posts to date. You can also view the Table of Contents of prior posts.
Feel free to ask questions. Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.org.
Updated October 2015.