NICU Emotions

We know life happens outside the NICU and does not slow down just because you have a baby. We know every family is special and experiences the NICU in different ways. We hope by reading this booklet, you may feel better understood and less alone. Our staff wants to be your cheerleaders to help you through what can be a very challenging and rewarding time for your family. We want to help keep you healthy so that you can be with your baby as much as possible.

Experiencing many feelings is common for our NICU parents. There can be joy in having a new baby but also stress in having a baby who is sick and needs special care. Many parents report feeling in shock by everything that has happened to them. They can have a hard time believing and accepting they are now a NICU parent. Be patient with yourself as it takes time to get used to the NICU!

Common Feelings 

Joy and Excitement

Congratulations! You just had a baby. Welcome to parenthood. Bringing new life into the world can be a positive experience and full of hope.

Fear or Worry

Parents may be fearful and ask themselves “Will my child survive?” or “Will my child be normal?” Sometimes parents also may worry about how life will change while their child is in the NICU and ask “Can I really do this?” and “What will life be like?”

Sometimes, NICU parents may worry they will not be able to take care of their tiny baby or feel they do not understand all of the equipment or medical words they hear from care providers. At times, it can be hard to be a NICU parent and they may fear they are being judged or that their friends or family do not understand what they are going through.

Sadness

Sadness is quite common for families in the NICU and can come and go. Sometimes this can result in crying spells, but not for everyone. “Baby blues” is the feeling of being overwhelmed, sad and unmotivated to take care of daily tasks within the first few weeks after giving birth.

These feelings may last longer for others and are more severe, progressing to what is known as post-partum depression (PPD). PPD can be more common for NICU parents due to the extra stress. Make sure you talk to a health care provider if you are having these feelings.

Anger

Parents may feel frustrated or angry about not having a “typical” birth or homecoming. Anger can also come from feeling a lack of control about the situation. Some parents may find they end up getting angry with their loved ones or with medical staff. Sometimes this may be due to overall frustration and less about a specific issue.

Self-blame or Guilt

It can be hard to accept when things do not go as planned or when there might not be a good explanation why something has happened. Sometimes parents will blame themselves. For most situations, a baby’s need for care in the NICU was not anyone’s fault. Learning how to let go of guilt and forgive ourselves can help parents be more emotionally present and focus on building their relationship with their baby.

Relief and Gratitude

Families can go through a lot of hard times before and during a pregnancy. Some may have a rough birth experience. It can be a relief that your baby has arrived and settled into the NICU.

Pride

Families may feel proud of themselves and their baby for getting this far in their journeys.

Loss

Parents often feel they have missed out on milestones, like having a third trimester or bringing their baby home right away. Many mothers miss being pregnant and all of the sensations and feelings that come with it. Some parents may also be grieving over the loss of what they pictured for their family by not having a “typical” child if the child was born with challenges.

Jealousy

This is a common feeling, especially when other friends or family members may be pregnant or having healthy babies, or when fellow NICU babies may go home before yours.

Numbness or Avoidance

Some parents may want to mentally shut down or not visit because they feel overloaded. Taking small steps and having short visits with your baby may help with this. However, if it continues or becomes a problem, let staff know. It can be a sign of traumatic stress.

Vulnerability

It may be hard for some parents to be separated from their baby and not have control of what is going on. It is hard to be separated from your baby, not have control of what is going on and trust the staff in taking care of him/her. Some parents may feel like they have no privacy in the NICU. They may worry that they are being watched or judged by staff or family.

Other Emotions and Reactions

Everyone has their own ways of dealing with these emotions. There is no one “right way” to get through the NICU experience.

Common Experiences

It is not uncommon for parents to experience any of the following:

  • Feeling tired (fatigue)
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty leaving baby
  • Outbursts
  • Withdrawal from others or seeming more distant
  • Low energy
  • Hypervigilance (i.e., “on alert”, staring at baby monitor)
  • Loss of interest in doing things you used to enjoy
  • Restlessness or jitteriness
  • Being easily startled
  • Confusion
  • Changes in appetite
  • Frequent crying
  • Poor concentration
  • Disbelief or Shock
  • Insomnia – not sleeping at all
  • Nightmares or flashback memories
  • Feeling disconnected from life outside of the NICU

Postpartum Depression (PPD)

Any new parent can develop PPD. It is even more common for parents with babies in the NICU. PPD can start during pregnancy, but it usually happens after baby is born, starting with the “baby blues.”

The baby blues are mild signs of depression that typically go away after a couple of weeks, and may include not feeling like yourself and/or frequent crying spells. When signs and symptoms of the baby blues get worse or last longer, they may turn into PPD.

Parents may feel overwhelmed, extreme sadness, or disinterest in their newborn. Loss of sleep and appetite changes are common. Parents who have had a time of depression at an earlier point in their life may be at a higher risk of having PPD. More severe PPD can include suicidal thoughts, which makes getting treatment very important.

Postpartum Anxiety (PPA)

Like PPD, postpartum anxiety (PPA) affects many new parents and can start during pregnancy. Some level of worry or anxiety can be expected when your baby is in the NICU. However, sometimes the anxiety can take over and interfere with daily life.

Parents may start to worry a lot, which may lead to obsessive thoughts, irrational fears, or physical signs of anxiety, like a fast heart rate, dizziness, or confusion. It is possible to have both PPD and PPA.

Postpartum Psychosis

Postpartum psychosis is very rare compared to PPD or PPA. It usually comes on fast during the first two weeks after baby is born.

Symptoms can include delusions or strange beliefs, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there), paranoia, and rapid mood swings. Sometimes the thoughts or delusions can be violent or destructive.

Psychosis can be temporary and is treatable, but it is an emergency. It is very important to reach out for help right away.

Traumatic Stress

Traumatic events are shocking and emotionally overwhelming. These situations may include actual or threatened death, or serious injury.

Sometimes a pregnancy, birth delivery, or admission to hospital can be experienced as traumatic. Traumatic stress, like feeling scared or anxious, is a normal reaction to a traumatic event. Your nervous system may feel overwhelmed at times by stress which leads to intense emotional and physical reactions. They may come in waves and may not even start within the first month.

Symptoms vary but can include shock, disbelief, fear, helplessness, avoidance, guilt, anger, shame, or numbness. Sometimes a person may also have troubling thoughts over and over, like nightmares or flashbacks to the event as if it was happening again.

Ignoring your feelings will slow recovery. It can help to find a routine and allow some time to heal. You may want to try talking to loved ones about your experience or using distracting activities to avoid obsessively reliving the traumatic event.

If symptoms do not get better over time and you feel “stuck,” it is important to talk to a healthcare provider. If the traumatic stress symptoms continue and interfere with daily life, a parent may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).