If that happens, you should continually remind yourself that it’s not your fault. For a variety of reasons completely outside our control, baby’s medical status can become fragile during pregnancy or birth. While sadness and fear will likely be woven into the experience, regret doesn’t have to be a constant in this unexpected journey. And it shouldn’t. Because in many ways, all regret does is suck you out of the present moment — and this is a present moment that requires all your energy and attention to make informed decisions and to care for your baby and yourself. Regret makes you ruminate over past circumstances that can’t be changed. And sure, when everything settles down, you can review the series of events that led you here, and see if there’s anything you’d change if you become pregnant again. But for now, give yourself permission to be kind to yourself. This also applies to your partner. It’s natural to want to blame someone when something goes wrong, but often, that only alienates your support system. Just keep choosing forgiveness and kindness — at least in your interactions with yourself and others.
Anger will almost undoubtedly be part of your early experience as well, and that’s okay. It will probably feel completely unfair that your family is having to navigate something so painful and unexpected. And it is. You deserved to give birth to a perfectly healthy baby, and it sucks that you were dealt a different hand. Let all this anger flow through and out to create space for strength. (See below for an idea of how to do that.) Because when we’re constantly trying to suppress negative emotions, it’s hard to find our way into courage and trust that we will make it through. But you will. Even though this might feel like an insurmountable situation, you will make it through.
While much of what you’ll do during this time depends on the unique circumstances of your baby’s health needs, here are some universal strategies for getting through a heath crisis with your baby:
- Keep bringing yourself back to the present. When our child’s health is in jeopardy, the mind tends to bounce back and forth between the past and the future — thoughts of the past, filled with unproductive regrets, and thoughts of the future, soaked in worst-case scenarios. Neither serves us. The most productive place for you is the present moment, where all you need to do is process and manage what is right in front of you. When your mind starts wandering to unproductive realms, pay attention to your five senses. Notice what you can see, smell, hear, taste, and touch, and let it pull you back into the now.
- Keep a running list of questions. When your newborn has a health condition, the questions and the storm of new information can be overwhelming. Keep track of it all by writing down your questions the moment you think of them. Then, take notes as the questions are answered. If anything is unclear, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Newborn Intensive Care: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Jeanette Zaichin also provides helpful insights on this topic.
- Request thorough communication. If your baby is in the NICU, you probably won’t be able to be with them 24/7, which could make you antsy for information. Ensure that you stay informed of baby’s health status by being adamant that the health care team regularly updates you.
- Be treated in the same facility as your baby. If your baby needs to be transferred to a new hospital and you’re still in need of postpartum care, ask if you can be transferred to the same facility.
- Ask to be part of baby’s care. While much of the care baby needs will likely require specialized training, there will be tasks like bathing, cleaning, and of course bonding that you can participate in. Work out a schedule with the care team so you know when to be present for these activities.
- Create a physical anchor. When we’re crippled by fear, it can feel like we’ve left our body. This can be paralyzing. When you notice you’re floating into fear, ground yourself by utilizing a physical anchor. For example, you can hug yourself, push down on your shoulders, or press your palms into your eyes. When you use your anchor of choice, couple it with an affirmation, something along the lines of “It’s safe to come back into my body.”
- Don’t blame yourself. Every time you try to blame yourself for what’s happening, mentally step out of yourself and firmly but gently say, “STOP.” After giving that stop message, treat yourself as you would a child who is broken up over something that isn’t their fault. You wouldn’t encourage them to be harder on themselves — you would nurture and reassure them. Do that for yourself.
- Take time every day to let out your emotions. Get into a private space for an hour (or for however long you have to be alone) every day and let yourself go. Scream, rage, cry, beat your fist on a pillow — let it out. Releasing these emotions can provide the clarity and calm to get you through the most difficult days of this journey. You can also journal during this time, letting out all the thoughts you don’t feel comfortable sharing with others.
If you find it helpful to have a sounding board, ask a friend or family member if they’d be willing to be this for you. Tell them straight up that you’re looking not for advice but for someone to be an active listener. I would stay away from asking your partner to do this, as they’re too close to the situation. While you’ll definitely be a support for one another, it’s ideal for each of you to have someone else to vent to.
- Go for a walk. Being in a medical facility for prolonged periods can be stifling, making it hard to think clearly. Refresh your mind, body, and emotions by going outside at least once a day and walking around the block, or to a local park. Amp up the benefits of the walk by listening to soothing music or a guided meditation.
- Nurture your basic needs. Drinking water, regularly eating nutritious food, and sleeping helps ensure that your health doesn’t sustain too much damage through this challenging time. My client Sarah had a premature baby who had to be in the NICU for four weeks. She said she felt like she had to martyr herself during that time. She said the thought “My baby is suffering, so I should suffer” constantly cycled through her mind. This resulted in her depriving herself of nourishing meals, quality sleep, and regular showers. Looking back, she regrets this attitude, saying, “By doing that I made myself so physically weak and uncomfortable, which made it harder to deal with my emotions, make decisions, and even spend time with my baby. Anytime I was with her in the NICU, I would just break down.”
While you probably won’t feel like doing anything but worry about your baby, forcing yourself to take care of those basic needs can fortify your ability to be there for them. You don’t deserve to suffer more than you already are.
- Join a support group. Having a child with unexpected health needs can feel very isolating — like no one else could possibly relate to your pain. But seeking the camaraderie of a support group for parents navigating similar situations can help you feel less alone, and talking with other parents provides an outlet for processing what your family is going through. Members of these groups are often wonderful resources as well, providing tips on the best care providers, helpful treatments for various conditions, and how to work with your insurance provider. Your baby’s doctor can likely provide recommendations for local support groups. the March of Dimes, National Perinatal Association, and shareyourstory.org can also connect you with helpful resources. In addition, platforms like Facebook have many online support groups.