Looking after your mental health on the neonatal unit

Mum standing by incubator in low light, looking at her baby and away from the camera

Looking after yourself, your relationships, and your other needs can help to support your mental health on the neonatal unit. Find out more about how to do this on this page.

Looking after yourself

Our mental health can be affected by physical changes in our bodies too. If you’ve experienced a traumatic birth, you’re in pain, or you’re sleep deprived, this can cause you to struggle, and can make challenges with your mental health feel worse.

Here are some ways you can help look after your physical health, which may also help your mental health.

Try and get some sleep – being sleep deprived can have a big impact on your mental health.

Get some daylight and fresh air – the artificial or dimmed lights of the unit can feel harsh or disorientating.

Eat regularly and get enough to drink – not having the energy your body needs from food and drink can make it harder to face challenges with your mental health.

Get some exercise – even a short walk can help.

Try doing some breathing exercises – find out more from NHS Choices about how some techniques can help with stress.

Try mindfulness or meditation – find out more from NHS Choices about how learning to be more present in the moment could help you.

Take time for yourself

We know that keeping families and babies together is good for both of them, and Bliss supports and empowers parents to be involved in their baby’s care on the neonatal unit.

But we also hear very different experiences from parents when it comes to spending time on the unit and how this impacts their mental health. Some parents will want to spend all the time they can with their baby, and others might find it very difficult to be there all the time.

Having a baby on the unit can be very intense, and just like when anyone has just had a baby, it is important that parents get some time for themselves.

It can feel hard to prioritise this as a parent, especially when your baby is unwell and you are separated from them.

But finding small amounts of time regularly to do something which makes you feel more like yourself can really help.

Some people find it helpful to make time to think and talk about 'ordinary life' outside of the unit and their baby. Meeting friends and family to catch up can be a good way to get some space.

We all have different things we do which make us feel like ourselves. Making time to keep doing these can help keep some familiar structure to your new routine on the unit. Here are some things other parents have found helpful.

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Supporting each other

Many parents find support in talking with their partner, friends, and family, but it can also make these relationships more strained, especially if you don’t feel it’s right for you to talk to them about what you’re going through.

Many parents often find it very hard to talk to older children about what has happened, why they aren’t at home as much, and what will happen next.

Making time to spend together as a family might not feel like a priority. However a few hours can really help to reconnect with the important people in your life. It can also give you time to talk about what you are experiencing, and to help process it together.

You might want to try doing some of things suggested above with your partner, other children, or other friends and family.

Some couples find counselling can help them if they are finding it hard to communicate about the difficulties they’re facing. Find out more through Relate, a charity which provides counselling to couples across the UK.

I kept it all bottled up until I got a discharge date. I broke down. I wish I had talked about how I was feeling. Being strong is about having the strength to say ‘I’m not OK’.

Victoria, mum

If you have struggled with your mental health before

If you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition in the past, or have struggled with your mental health, spending time in the unit could make these worse, or make the symptoms come back.

It is important that you continue any support you are receiving already, and that you let health professionals know that you are now facing more challenges.

If you are on medication for your mental health, it is important that you do not make any changes to how you take this without talking to your health professional. You might be worried about how medication could affect your milk, if you are breastfeeding or expressing.

Talk to your health professional about your worries – they’ll be able to work with you to find the best next steps for you and your baby.

Do you need urgent help with your mental health?

If you have had thoughts of self-harming or suicide, get help right away. Contact your local A&E department, emergency GP service, or call The Samaritans on 116 123.

The information in this section is due for review November 2021