Parenting in the NICU is exhausting – physically, mentally, and emotionally. It takes a huge toll on your body and your spirit, and that’s true even when your journey is a relatively easy one. If you’re coping with the effects of extreme prematurity or your preemie is sick, you’re facing an even longer, tougher road.
Taking a break can seem ridiculous. Your preemie needs you! And so that’s why I’m not going to suggest you go out to dinner, skip a NICU visit, or go away for the weekend. Some parents of preemies find that doing these things makes it easier – but for many others, the idea of not being at a preemie’s bedside feels too scary to contemplate. There’s no right or wrong answer. Taking a day for yourself when your preemie is in the NICU is actually pretty healthy, but if you’d rather not? That’s okay, too.
Obviously there are situations where spending every waking moment in the NICU is not an option. Many parents of preemies (myself included) have to work. Lots also have older children at home who need care. And if daily responsibilities drive when you can and can’t be in the NICU, that’s okay, too.
But if you have a tough time stepping out of the NICU and don’t have obligations forcing you to take a break, here are some ideas to help you unwind when staying home from the hospital isn’t an option:
Have a conversation with the NICU staff that isn’t about premature birth or your preemie. The longer your preemie is in the hospital, the deeper your relationship with their care team (which includes everyone from specialists to doctors and nurses to social workers and even the maintenance staff) will become. It’s comforting to put names to these faces and to know something about them that isn’t related to your situation. You may learn that you actually have lots in common with the people taking care of your baby!
Read out loud to your preemie. No matter how early or how fragile your baby is, you can read your favorite books to them. And if you dislike Goodnight Moon (or don’t yet have a copy), it doesn’t matter. Read Harry Potter or YOUR favorite books. Your baby will be soothed by the sound of your voice and chances are you’ll be comforted by the interaction. Reading to your preemie every day is one way to feel like an engaged parent when you feel helpless and you’re surrounded by reminders of your baby’s premature birth.
Or catch up on your own reading – just for pleasure. Spending as much time as possible at your preemie’s bedside is fulfilling but also monotonous. After all, one of the most important things a preemie can do is sleep! Bring a book or all those magazines you haven’t had a chance to thumb through and escape the NICU in your imagination between feedings. Just make sure what you’re reading is uplifting or thrilling enough to take your mind off the bings and bongs of the NICU.
Decorate your preemie’s room or bedside. If you suspect your baby will be in the NICU for an extended period of time, making it feel more like home is a great idea. Make sure you know your NICU’s rules about items brought in from home first, and then do what you can to have a little bit of the nursery you’d have at home right there in the hospital. If you feel calmer at your baby’s bedside, chances are they will benefit.
Start writing a journal or poems or even a book. While journaling is an effective way to process the many emotions you feel about your baby’s premature birth, writing can also take your mind off your current circumstances for a little while. If you’ve ever had a book idea floating around in your head, now is as good a time as any to start writing!
Step outside while your preemie is napping. If you’re lucky, the neighborhood around your NICU has a few spots worth strolling. But if not know that many hospitals have meditation gardens or walking paths, so why not ask at the info desk if yours is one of them? Once your baby is settled, take a quick walk. If you’re worried about being gone too long, set an alarm for 20 minutes. You’ll return refreshed and ready to share some of your renewed energy with your preemie.
Get some work done at your baby’s bedside or in the waiting area. While no parent wants to be working in the NICU, our parental leave policies in the US make it so doing some remote work might be in your best interests. Many hospitals now have free wi-fi. Just make sure to ask whether devices are allowed inside the unit before firing up your laptop.
Play games online. Assuming your NICU allows you to bring electronic devices into the unit, mobile gaming can be a distraction and a social activity all in one. Let friends know you are looking for gaming buddies and what times you’ll be playing, and you can take a break without ever leaving your preemie’s bedside.
Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to unwind. Some parents feel comfortable getting away, some parents feel most comfortable spending as much time as possible in the NICU. But even if you fall into the second group, it’s good to reconnect with things you find comforting. Taking time to care for yourself doesn’t have to mean taking time away from your preemie.