with Registered Social Worker Kristin Reinhart
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- One Mom’s NICU Experience
- Immediately Bonding With A NICU Baby Versus A Healthy Baby
- Successive NICU Experiences Can Differ
- The Best Ways To Support A NICU Mom
- When A NICU Mom Should Seek Help
Pregnancy, labor, and delivery are hard enough. But having a baby in NICU is terrifying and can be traumatic. Kristin Reinhart is a social worker and perinatal mental health specialist with 15 years of experience. More importantly, she’s a mom who survived 2 NICU experiences. She’s here to share her experience, how to know when you need help, and how to help a NICU mom.
One Mom’s NICU Experience
After a pregnancy free of complications and a full term delivery, NICU was a shock for Kristin, and she didn’t trust anyone with the baby, even herself. “There was a lack of trust within myself to parent and to be a mom,” Kristin said.
1 in 5 moms experience postpartum depression or anxiety. Mood disorders are the most common birth complication, and having a baby in the NICU skews that because it can be such a scary experience.
“In terms of parent care in the NICU, there really wasn’t any in it,” Kristin said. There is such a transition during delivery, and we’re also healing physically. Kristin was aware her daughters needed acute care, but she was recovering too and didn’t get the check-ins.
“You’re in survival in those days and when you go home and transition out of the NICU, your body doesn’t know the difference between a perceived threat and a real threat,” she explained. If your baby is still medically fragile after returning home from NICU, the threat may be real.
For Kristin, this wasn’t the case and even as a mental health professional, she went into isolation mode, because she didn’t know how to ask for the help she needed. “No one parents these mothers who are going through such an isolating experience. I think there is a lot of room for work around that,” she said.
Medical staff come in and out of your hospital room while you’re recovering after birth, so returning home with Baby might be the first quiet time we have to process the entire NICU experience. Being home and not feeling safe can be more traumatic than the hospital stay itself.
That quiet time at home also gives our brains the opportunity to run through how bad things were and every possible scenario and just how bad things could have been. This can be very anxiety producing. We may find ourselves hypervigilant and checking on baby, or we may not want to check on and may possibly even avoid baby because we don’t trust ourselves..
It’s really common in trauma to look for things we could have done differently. That’s our brain trying to make something logical out of something that wasn’t logical. We have to learn to accept the trauma to work through it, and that often requires working with a therapist. Kristin and I both do this kind of work, so if you’re struggling reach out.
Immediately Bonding With A NICU Baby Versus A Healthy Baby
A lot of moms feel guilt or shame if they don’t immediately bond with their baby, but there are a couple of reasons this happens. We have a romanticized view of meeting a newborn. Think about every movie or TV show you’ve seen where someone has a baby. Mom is smiling and basked in a bright glowing light—real hospital rooms don’t come equipped with stage lights to show your best angle—and she’s handed a clean, cuddly, smiling newborn wrapped in a gender stereotypical blanket. (Newborns also don’t smile.)
In the real world, Mom may have gone through hours of physical trauma. The baby cries before she’s had a chance to recover, and it may have been a day or two since Mom has eaten or slept. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the baby. She’s just a whole person who is suffering physically, may have had a traumatic birth—and likely some amount of pain—and needs time to recover.
But it’s also really scary to bond with a baby in the NICU. You have no idea what’s going to happen. There can be an overwhelming sense of dread. “What happens if I get attached to this baby, and they don’t survive? No mom wants to endure that.
“I was still recovering in the maternal ward while my baby was in the NICU. They were in separate areas of the hospital, and when the nurses would call me to go visit my baby, I would decline because there was such a fear of walking in there and what I might see,” Kristin said. “I didn’t want to bond with my baby, because I was so afraid I might lose her.”
“Your body was shutting down, because you were working so hard to survive that,” Kristin explained. It’s a trauma response. Your body thinks if it can keep you from bonding, it won’t be as bad if you lose that baby.
And after a NICU experience, it can be really hard to trust that your child is going to be okay. “I see so much room to incorporate mindfulness and compassion work right in the NICU,” Kristin said. “I would like to see it move in that direction.”
Successive NICU Experiences Can Differ
“I know there was a heightened sense of anxiety going into the second pregnancy,” she said. She needed reassurance in the form of checking the heartbeat or extra sonograms. Her support system tried to rally behind her but didn’t understand why she needed so much reassurance.
But after a NICU experience, it’s not uncommon to be worried about the baby and pregnancy the second time around. Once you’ve been through a traumatic situation, your body recognizes it and wants to protect you.
The Best Ways To Support A NICU Mom
“It’s hard to know what you need for support,” Kristin said. Of course, this makes it hard for your friends and family to know how to support you. If you’re supporting a NICU mom, it’s important to remember you don’t need to fix it. It’s enough to just be there.
“It’s really about having that mom and that family know that you’re there. We don’t need anyone to fix anything. We just need them there,” she explained. Asking a mom what she needs shifts more burden on her.
Some things I like to do for mom friends who just had a baby are randomly drop off food or an UberEats card, or if you have the means, a housecleaner. There are lots of creative, practical ways to support our friends. One of the things Kristin remembers the most from her NICU experience was a friend dropping off a bottle of water, because she didn’t want to leave the NICU to get something to drink.
When A NICU Mom Should Seek Help
We tend to compare our experiences to others and think “Well, my experience wasn’t as bad as hers,” but it doesn’t have to be. We don’t have to be in a crisis situation to get help. Talking to someone and getting education on how your body responds to trauma could be helpful in preventing a crisis situation.
We don’t have to experience PTSD to get help. If you’re having flashbacks to NICU experience, avoiding doctors and well baby checkups, if you’re having trouble sleeping, feeling easily triggered, or struggling to bond with baby, it’s okay to get help. Because these aren’t normal adjustments to parenthood.
Kristin Reinhart is a Registered Social Worker and a Master’s Level Therapist (qualifying). She is also certified in Eye Movement Integration (EMI) therapy. She has been working in the field of mental health since 2006. She developed a passion for perinatal mental health after a lived Neonatal Intensive Care experience following the birth of both of her daughters. It was through this experience she became acutely aware of the need for adequate and timely support and resources for women during the perinatal period. She also enjoys and takes great value in volunteering as a coordinator with PSI, where she offers peer support, information, resources, referrals & a sense of hope to families.