September is Neonatal Intensive Care Awareness (NICA) Month. Every year approximately 10-15% of all babies born in the United States spend some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit(NICU). Reasons for NICU admissions vary but can include prematurity, birth defects, breathing problems, infections, low blood sugar, and seizures.
The path and course of a NICU stay is different for every family. Some know before they give birth to anticipate time in the NICU, while for some it is unanticipated. Some babies spend a few days in the NICU while some spends weeks or months. Some families are discharged with a healthy baby and some leave with babies who require ongoing medical care. For some families, the NICU is where they must say goodbye to their baby for the last time
The NICU exists in a liminal space, somewhere between tragedy and miracle, between hope and heartache, between life and death. It’s complicated, scary, intense and beautiful at the same time. Given the degree of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty involved in a NICU stay, it is unsurprising that having a child in the NICU puts new parents at an increased risk of developing postpartum depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Studies vary, but somewhere between 28%-70% of mothers with children in the NICU develop symptoms of Postpartum Depression/Anxiety compared to 15%-20% of moms of healthy babies. Elevated rates of depression have also been found in fathers with children in the NICU. Studies on postpartum PTSD indicate a significantly elevated risk for NICU mothers, and suggest that the risk of developing PTSD persist after discharge from the NICU.
In addition to the obvious concerns over having a sick child, there are additional reasons why families with a baby in the NICU are at increased risk for developing PMADs. Financial stress and the worry about ongoing financial burden elevates the risk of PMADS. The environment of the NICU, namely, the lack of natural light and constant noise can increase vulnerability. Certain emotional factors such as feeling helpless, un-empowered, or a lack of clarity or confidence in parental role are also risk factors. Lastly, a lack of social support and isolation can contribute to the development of PPD.
We all can do so much more to support NICU families. To learn more about NICA month and how to honor NICU patients, their families, and the medical personnel who care from them, please click here. Stay tuned for suggestions on how to care for your emotional well-being when your child is in the NICU.