Taking Care of Yourself

When your baby is in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), stress quickly becomes a big part of your life. Talk to any parent who has been there and you’ll find there are many reasons for feeling stressed at this time. Studies show that parents of babies in the NICU face unique stressors, such as:

A change in your role as parent: the role change for a parent is one of the greatest sources of stress. Being in the NICU disrupts your normal forms of contact with your baby. For instance, at first you may not know if you can touch, talk to, or feed your baby. Parents of babies in the NICU report their biggest stressors are not being able to hold or help care for their baby, to protect him or her from pain, or to share their baby’s birth with other family members.

Feeling a lack of control: it is very hard for parents to know their baby is in pain and that they can’t take direct action to stop it. Some parents may feel confused about the way their baby acts or behaves while in the NICU. All of these feelings can make parents feel they have no control over events. In some cases, parents may also feel guilt that they cannot help their baby, may have caused an early birth, or could not prevent him or her from being ill.

Not knowing what will happen next: one day your baby is doing well, the next day there’s a problem. Parents’ feelings and hopes go up and down all the time. The watching and waiting is hard. Parents want to feel like they can take some sort of direct action to make their child better. This is something you never expected.

Parents’ health: mothers who have just given birth may be trying to recover from the birth, may not feel well, and may feel a terrible loss at being separated from their baby. Fathers of these infants often feel the double stress of having a spouse in one unit and an infant in another.

Time: the stress for parents can last for a while, even after your baby is released from the NICU. Some studies have found high levels of stress in parents up to six months after discharge. Mothers of high-risk, very low birth weight (less than 1,500 grams or 3.3 pounds) infants were found to have some degree of distress even when the child reached two years of age. For parents who endured a high-risk pregnancy, this stress may have begun several months before birth.

What is stress?

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Although stress is common, many people do not really know how it occurs, or all the ways it can affect their lives. Here are a few main points about stress that often are overlooked:

• Stress affects the mind and the body. It not only affects thoughts and feelings, but also affects the body in ways you can feel (such as increased heart rate) and in ways we cannot feel (such as an increase or decrease in your immune system response). This is why some people get a cold or other health problem when stressed, or why an existing illness may worsen. In some women, stress also can affect their ability to breastfeed their infant.

• The effects of stress occur even when you don’t know it (e.g. through increased blood pressure or other physical effects).

• A person’s stress also affects family and friends. Think of family members as being like ripples in a stream. When a ripple occurs, several more follow. Likewise, when one family member is stressed, it affects the others. When families are under a great deal of stress, problems may also arise between family members.

• Men and women react to stress in different ways. Women tend to feel more stress than men. They are also more likely to look for ways to minimize the stress, thus are more prone to feeling depressed. Men may be more likely to discount the stress and to ignore their own feelings.

What are some signs of stress?

At a time when many events and feelings seem to rush by and you are so focused on your baby, it is easy to forget about how you are feeling and coping. Keeping your own emotions balanced can be very hard during stressful times. Often, you don’t know you are feeling such stress until it lets you know it’s there. That is, the stress that builds up inside during these times begins to show signs, physically and emotionally, that it is there.

These signs may include illness (both short-term problems, such as a cold, as well as long-term problems, such as a chronic illness). Other signs may include behaving in ways that are out of character. You may think, “It’s not like me to act like this.” For instance, this could be exploding in anger at little things, or crying at what you once would have thought to be a small problem. Relationships, especially between a baby’s parents, may also be affected by stress.

Sometimes people adopt habits, such as drinking, smoking or binge eating, that they feel relieves the stress. You may become overly anxious, depressed or too focused on small things. You may find it hard to focus, think clearly or make decisions. All of these are signs that the stress is becoming too much for you. They are ways in which your body and mind attempt to help you.

How do I really know when the stress is too much to handle on my own?

There’s no right or wrong answer, but a general guideline used by mental health experts is that when these actions or feelings begin to disrupt your daily life or your ability to carry out daily functions, then it’s time to seek help from a person trained in this area. Although sharing your feelings with others is helpful during stressful times, you often miss the signs that the stress is affecting you.

What are some ways to deal with stress? What does coping with stress really mean?

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Briefly, coping with stress means learning how stress affects you, how to deal with it as best you can, and learning how to limit its impact upon you and your family. Since the event(s) causing the stress won’t simply go away, you have to figure out how to deal with it. Keep in mind that people react to life events in different ways and have different coping skills to handle (or not to handle) extreme stress. The key idea behind any type of coping is to express, which means to allow the stress to escape from both body and mind. Here are a few ways to do this:

Talk – in one study of NICU parents, those who did not talk about their feelings were more likely to have signs of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). It is known that when people hide their emotions, they do not allow the body or the mind to process the trauma. If they don’t process the trauma, then they don’t adapt to it or find ways to cope with it.

Be active – both sports and hobbies are active ways to release energy and stress, as well as express feelings through actions, words, art, or music.

Breathe – when under extreme stress, the body prepares for fight or flight by sending energy and oxygen to muscles and away from the brain. At this time, you also may focus on the cause of the stress and forget to breathe deeply. When vital oxygen does not reach the brain, you feel unable to think and to make decisions. This often is why you may hear others say to take a deep breath when stressed.

Be aware of how you are feeling – be aware of your body’s signals for stress. Think about healthy ways to address it that work for you.

Rely on family support – families often provide vital support during extreme stress. In a study of NICU parents, those in families that pulled together and expressed their feelings showed fewer signs of extreme stress; however, this means finding ways to support each other. In the study, family members who tried to cope with their own stress by controlling others in the family had a negative effect on the family system.

Be involved in your baby’s care – a major source of stress for a parent is the loss of your role as parent. Being an active partner in your baby’s care can help reduce feelings of helplessness and anxiety. For instance, you may be able to help feed your baby or help with other care tasks. Talk to your baby’s doctors and nurses about ways you can partner in his or her care.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with a health care professional if you have any questions about the health of your baby.