Taking a break from the NICU – Leah's story

Leah describes how spending so much time in NICU took a toll on her mental health and the steps she took to make herself and her family feel less stressed, while still caring for her daughter, Bonnie.

The pregnancy had been ticking along nicely, the latest scan was ‘normal’ and we were glad to know the baby was doing fine. The trouble was, I was sure that I wasn't fine.

With a perpetually coldy son starting at nursery, the death of a parent, and a return to work from maternity leave, my short pregnancy was filled with stressors and strains which left me with a desperate need to take a break. I went on early maternity leave to kick back and heal up but our baby had other ideas. Bonnie arrived less than a fortnight later, 17 weeks early.

Now our family life was crowded with all-new difficulties to navigate.

The fear of losing Bonnie was immense and all-consuming at first, we had new medical information to digest and a complicated new routine to accept. Navigating child-care and work schedules while toing and froing between home and the hospital was our new normal and the prospect of some rest and recuperation was now a dot in the distance.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers did everything possible to support us in our journey.

They encouraged breast pumping and containment holding amongst the ways to care for the baby that would temper the anxiety of separation. Bliss volunteers were also on hand to offload some of the confusion and mixed feelings too. But perhaps the advice that was most welcome, was that we should stop for a moment and take a break.

In the midst of a life lived through four months in NICU, 'self-care' becomes more than a glib Instagram hashtag slapped below a photo of a frothy coffee. Suddenly it becomes apparent that if you don't eat and drink, you can't make milk for the baby. If you don't sleep, you can't pay attention to the details of the complex medical care choices you need to make. And if you do nothing but focus on everyone else’s needs - here comes the taboo - you start to dread going to NICU at all for the toll it is taking on your mental health.

During our NICU journey, I found a forum post one day on a parenting website, where a mum had asked if it was safe to have false nails around her premature baby. I'd been wondering the same thing. In the comment section, a stranger passed judgement on her situation and questioned why a person with a sick child would even be thinking about getting their nails done.

"She needs a break," I thought. And in solidarity, went to get my own nails done that day.

I came back to NICU later that afternoon, feeling a little guilty and unsure if I had done the right thing. Had a nurse seen me and thought I didn’t care about my poorly baby? Should I be worried about my own bonding when many parents seem to breeze through the experience of sitting by the cot side day after day?

As soon as I saw my baby though, the anxiety diffused. I felt more able to smile at her and coo again, more able to function. I also had something fresh and new to talk about to her from beyond the hospital walls – I’d chosen a coral pink that day, having suddenly noticed that the season had changed from winter to spring while we’d been so busy with her needs.

I realised that self-care and taking time away from NICU isn't selfish, it can actually be vital.

It can give ultimately give you the clarity you need to help you to pause and take stock, better bond with your baby going forward and to keep you moving in a positive direction. There is colossal pressure on parents in NICU to process trauma whilst engaging in the joint effort of preserving the lives of our little ones. Not least the pressure we inevitably put on ourselves as we parents and the feelings of guilt, shock, disappointment and more that can barely get a moment of our attention.

Perhaps if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and want to feel like your ‘old self’ for a moment, brush off the guilt and take a breath: give yourself the permission to do something that is just for you one afternoon and then get back in the saddle tomorrow.