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When Your Baby Is in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

As you recover from the initial shock of a premature birth or the birth of a baby who needs specialized care – or both – you may find yourself experiencing an onslaught of emotions. These include: guilt, displaced anger, anticipatory grief and jealousy.

Guilt – Guilt is the most common emotion experienced by women who have had children born prematurely or with a disability. But women cannot blame themselves for the early birth of their child. Some questions to consider:

  • Are you focusing on one detail of the situation to the exclusion of everything else?
  • Are you thinking of everything concretely, in black and white?
  • Are you jumping to a conclusion based on one single event?
  • Are you catastrophizing or magnifying?

Displaced Anger – Many people unintentionally act out their emotions through anger. It is an impulsive reaction caused by feelings of resentment surrounding the circumstances of the trauma of birthing a premature infant.You may discover that anger is an attempt to minimize anxiety, to protect your ego and to maintain a defense mechanism. You are avoiding your real fears by refusing to face what is happening to you.

Anticipatory Grief – You are having trouble moving forward because you cannot imagine how the outcome for your baby can be good. This is called anticipatory grief. It can occur in situations where the outcome is known, such as the terminal illness of a family member, or unpredictable, such as a preterm infant. Anticipatory grief can be defined as feeling the effects of loss and grief before death even occurs.

Jealousy – Because your child needs round-the-clock care, you are going to have to hand over many of the duties you imagined yourself doing, such as feeding, bathing and comforting your baby. While the rational side of you may recognize that the nurse’s job of keeping your baby healthy is the priority, at the same time you are jealous of what you perceive to be a developing relationship that belongs to you.

Getting accustomed to the NICU can help neutralize all of the above emotions. As you are able to learn more about your child’s prematurity or condition, you will realize that your actions or perceived lack of actions during your pregnancy did not cause this to happen. As you see your child’s health improving, the anticipatory grief will recede. And as you are able to focus on holding your child more often and assisting with his or her care, such as feeding and bathing, the anger and jealousy will also fade.

However, your time in the NICU will likely be filled with many highs and lows. Now knowing what to expect in the coming days, weeks and years will be troubling. Unfortunately, medical science has not come far enough to give the guarantees that you so desperately want to hear about your baby’s health and future. That only thing to do is master the skills of patience and calm and accept whatever challenges lie ahead.


p>Preemie Parents: Recovering from Baby’s Premature Birth. Lisa McDermott-Perez, et al. Copyright© (2007) by Lisa McDermott-Perez. Reproduced with persmission of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Perinatal mood disorders are treatable. But first you have to ask for help.

call the helpline 24/7 at

1-800-328-3838


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Last Modified: Thursday, 12-Jul-12 11:44:48