Simple Things NICU Moms (and Dads!) Can do to Take Care of Themselves

Being in the NICU and for months afterward, as a therapist I *knew* I needed to practice self-care in order to keep standing and survive the numerous stressors we had to juggle on a daily basis. Unfortunately, as I learned, the practice of self-care was easier said than done, and the things that people suggested (getting more sleep, taking a day off, etc) were oftentimes impossible given the circumstances.

Photo by metinkiyak/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by metinkiyak/iStock / Getty Images

During the NICU we had to cope with making medical decisions, sleep deprivation, and having chronic anxiety. For me: pumping all night and day. For my husband: having to go to work and continue functioning on a professional level while at the same time his heart was in an incubator 10 miles away. For both of us: dealing with an array of personalities providing care for our sons, aching to be able to take our boy home, grief, depression, isolation, chronic stress, the feeling that our basic existence was moving forward without two very important people being close to us. In a nutshell, the experience was a recipe to create PTSD.

After the NICU and for the following year, stressors included things like: isolation for months during quarantine, debt, the continuance of medical issues, coordinating medical care and appointments, anxiety, stress, grief, the "typical" stresses associated with having a newborn like prolonged sleep deprivation, learning how to parent, coping with getting along with a new human being. As NICU parents: the feeling that friends and family who in the past had been our primary supports no longer truly "understood" what we were going through. The stunning, debasing feeling of hearing your baby cough the first time they get sick after the NICU, and the fear it inspires deep inside. Sometimes, NICU parents also have to cope with diagnoses, medical and otherwise. 

One of the things I found useful was to surrender to the fact that I might need to trust others to find guidance in learning how to take care of myself. Here are a few tips in self-care that I've gathered in my family's quest to make things easier for others who may be struggling:

During the NICU:

1. Take at least one "time out" from bedside per day.

 At around 60/88 days into our total stay, I realized that Lucile Packard Children's Hospital had some beautiful grounds to walk around.

At around 60/88 days into our total stay, I realized that Lucile Packard Children's Hospital had some beautiful grounds to walk around.

Often, in our quest to advocate for our little ones, we become accustomed to the practice of staying bedside throughout the day and night, even when we are hungry, exhausted, or haven't seen the sun for days on end. Going to a support meeting, getting a coffee, or even taking a short walk outside can provide a huge reprieve and actually improve your capability to weather decision-making, disappointment, or manage anxiety.

2. Drink a lot of water.

This sounds really basic, but in reality it can provide a huge amount of healing when you are coping with the NICU. With the chronic stress of being in a hospital environment, lack of sleep, and exposure to numerous germs etc., being in the NICU can put you at a higher risk of catching a cold, which then keeps you from being able to visit your baby (it's a terrible negative feedback loop). Drinking water not only keeps you hydrated enough to hopefully produce breast milk, but also clears your system and helps your body cope with chronic stress.

3. Fire Dr. Google, join an online support group instead.

At first it's extremely tempting to google all of the myriad procedures, diagnostics, and issues that you're presented with when your baby is in the NICU (believe me, I know this personally!). After all, predictability is a HUGE source of help when you're dealing with chronic stress. However, due to the impersonal/inaccurate nature of utilizing a search engine, you can accidentally find yourself in a space wherein you feel the worst case scenario is inevitable, and hopelessness becomes your daily go-to. Finding an online support group on Facebook or BabyCenter can put you in contact with families that are going through or who have been through very similar circumstances, and whose human responses of support may provide far more comfort than the cold diagnostics spit forth by a search engine that doesn't know the intricacies of your family's story.

4. Make a space for you and your partner to process your experiences.

The partnership of parents oftentimes becomes compromised when a family is put into a crisis. The roles each partner plays in the NICU are demanding, draining, stressful and isolating. Often, based on our own histories, partners have different ways of coping with stress that can also create a space/distance between us. Setting aside time, even 15 minutes, per day so that you and your partner can vent or process your experiences can create a safety net for your relationship that is stronger than you would imagine. Actively listening to one another and trying to get on the same page with each others' struggles will not only provide each of you with healing, but will build an incredible foundation wherein your trust for each other can flourish for years moving forward.

5. Set boundaries where you need to.

I shut down my Facebook account. Others delegate a close friend or family member to manage their pages or communicate news. Set aside a time of day (or the week) when you will check in with one person, who can then relay messages about what's happening in the NICU to the other individuals who care. I remember during our experience, talking about the various surgeries, transfusions or procedures triggered anxiety and emotional flooding in my mind. At the end of the day in the NICU, the last thing one needs is to feel triggered yet again. Strategize ways in which you can prevent feeling drained by taking care of others-- but at the same time communicate the news you want or need to share. Tune into yourself and choose what works for you. Some families find that direct communication and/or social media is helpful, and that's ok too. Developing a conscious approach to the boundaries that you need in order to best thrive can save you from feeling drained.

6. Find your "lighthouse".

 Elliott & the sunset.

Elliott & the sunset.

Oftentimes, when faced with the NICU, families are thrust into the most anxiety-provoking and painful experience they could have imagined. Finding your faith, spirituality, or other belief system and making a space for it each day is incredibly healing. For me, developing a sense of mindfulness and reading about how it worked made me feel a considerable amount of insight and safety in my day to day experience. Acknowledging just how much I loved my sons also created a guiding light that got me through each day. In our darkest moments, the things that feed our soul and survive the trauma oftentimes become more apparent, because they're the only things left. Recognizing that as a strength and deliberately creating a space for it can make one feel armed against the flurry of traumas one is expected to juggle each day in the NICU. I recommend examining yours. 

7. Maintain a space for self-expression.

Someday, your NICU experience will (thankfully) be a memory. But it's surprising in the future how much you might want to remember, how much you'll seek mementos of your extraordinary journey, how much you will treasure the things that mark that space in time. Taking photos on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, decorating the incubator(s), keeping a journal, creating a baby book, all of these are things that might prove to be extraordinarily helpful not only in processing the experience in the moment, but in finding the value in it in the future (possibly even in explaining the story to your little one as they get older). Other things include creating a soundtrack (I dedicated songs to William and Elliott throughout our experience that I'd play en route back and forth to the hospital each day), keeping a spoken-word journal, creating a blog, or knitting/crocheting blankets or clothing for your little one. In expressing yourself you can create your own, personal experience out of what can be a very disorienting process. In making your own mark, you re-empower yourself and your family as important, unique people facing extraordinary circumstances, and the individual ways in which you withstood them.

Being a NICU parent is stressful. And while many of us find the resilient parts of ourselves we never knew existed while going through the experience, the notion of figuring out a way to practice "self-care" during the experience can sound like tacking on the responsibility of learning a foreign language while going through the hardest time of your life. Nonetheless, practicing self-care can make a significant difference in setting the context for whether you are surviving the experience, or thriving within it.

Next up: self-care practices for after the NICU.

Please feel free to comment with ways you practiced self-care in the NICU that aren't mentioned here! The power of sharing resources is insurmountable.

 

"The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"?

A documentary discussing an interesting issue was recently brought to my attention. It's about the plasticity of the brain, and talks about the potential for scientists to either place false memories or remove traumatic memories from individual's minds as a way to "heal" from trauma. Pretty science fictiony right? 

It got me to thinking about traumatic memories, particularly those of NICU parents. NICU parents have a unique situation: one in which the trauma that they've been exposed to had to do with witnessing their baby or babies fight for their lives in the hospital-- horrific-- but not necessarily in the same way that witnessing a car accident or physical abuse might be, as our trauma is intertwined with our babies' entrance into the world.  On this topic I was quick to realize that there's no way I would prefer to forget my traumatic memories; not only do they contain critically important details of my sweet boys' lives (and William's passing), but at the same time, the experiences gave me a completely different sense of the world around me. It wasn't necessarily a positive sense, but it felt powerful and important. It most definitely changed the way I perceived things; the way I think. 

Trauma is essentially the experience of something terrible-- it can be either through our own experience of crisis or through watching someone we care about struggle with something extraordinary. Our brains work hard to make a discrete memory of traumatic circumstances for the evolutionary purpose of being prepared if something along the same lines should happen again. For example, one of my earliest memories is that of grabbing a metal railing to pull myself out of the pool at a swimming lesson-- it was burning hot-- I let go and sunk back into the pool. My mind stored that memory as an extremely important thing as my fear of drowning and the reality of it took over at that moment-- I believe I was only two years old.

Our experience of trauma becomes "disordered" (I hate that descriptor) when elements of our reaction to it continue to affect our lives in a negative way long after the trauma has ended. Many NICU parents have experienced this in ways like hearing a beeping noise that brings you back to the constant alarm of the apnea and other monitors in the NICU and becoming anxious, perhaps even sweating or developing insomnia in response to it. Many times it is our bodies that respond to these triggers; I remember once smelling hand sanitizer that had a similar fragrance to the one at our NICU and becoming physically ill. In fact, many newer theories about the experience of trauma posit that we hold much of these experiences in our physical bodies. It makes sense, as traumatic memories are often stored in a different part of the brain than our autobiographical memories; it is nonverbal, and has much to do with the sensory perception associated with specific memories: the limbic system. 

The neuroscientist Dan Siegel writes much about the notion that the attachment a parent has with their child can be gauged by that parent's own narrative memory and whether it is coherent or not. Additionally most trauma literature within the field of psychology puts forth the notion that in the treatment of trauma, the goal is for the client to develop a cohesive memory that incorporates the traumatic event within it. Siegel talks about how when a parent has gone through a traumatic circumstance, it's essential for them to integrate the memory into their own personal narrative in order to have an optimal attachment with their baby (Siegel, 2001). It reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend when she was pregnant with her son. I told her that I hoped he would "always be happy". Her response surprised me at the time; she said that "I think it's also important for him to learn about sadness too". The conversation shifted the way that I perceived parenting significantly, and in actually becoming a parent, I realized that her words held even more power and honesty than I had previously thought. To imagine human beings as ideally being two-dimensional super-happy people leaves out a huge piece of the human experience. Without sadness or pain, what would happiness look like? 

So, what of it when we are confronted with the idea that we could forget the NICU and everything that happened there? Everything that at once deconstructed our lives but at the same time brought our children into the world? What would it mean for our attachment with our children that we wouldn't have any information about our most painful experiences, that were innately intertwined with their lives, to share with them? What of the gaps in our narratives? What if instead of "removing" traumatic memories from our conscious/unconscious mind, we instead worked to figure out how to perceive them differently-- perhaps in ways that serve us, our children, our families and friends in moving forward?

What if, instead of holding on to the end goal of "forgetting" trauma, we chose to carry it with us, perhaps in the hope that in communicating what we have been through, we could help others to understand it? 

Siegel, D. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: attachment relationships, "mindsight," and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 67-94.

If your interest is piqued by this subject, the documentary I referenced here is called "Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain" and on Sunday, November 15, at 9 pm ET it will air on the National Geographic Channel.

Is Growth Possible after Trauma?

My new post at Preemie Babies 101 went up today; it talks about the sometimes unexpected changes that can occur after having gone through NICU trauma. Check it out: 

"...After the NICU, as we assessed what still stood around us, what hadn’t changed dramatically or crumbled in our lives, I wondered how the experience would affect my story, our story, the story of our family. Did this trauma mean that we would become a sad story? Our lives a tragedy? Would our lives forever be shifted into the shadow of grief?

The answer, unexpectedly, was no."

To read more, click here. 

Making Memories During Difficult Times: Remembering as a Way of Coping in the NICU

During the first few days of my sons' lives, I was so sad, so overwhelmed, my life so upended and my anxiety level so high, I didn't want to remember it. I remember distinctly thinking, "I don't want to remember any of this at all". At the time my logic was, "why would I want to remember seeing my boys in pain, hooked up to monitors and fighting for their lives? Why would I want to remember what it feels like during what seems to be the worst days of my life?"

 Phone photo of Elliott on the ventilator.

Phone photo of Elliott on the ventilator.

It wasn't until after we got home from the NICU and I made connections with other NICU parents that I realized this was a somewhat common experience, however guilty and shameful it made me feel while we were still in the hospital. Even if parents didn't necessarily feel they didn't want to remember the experiences at hand, many are so overwhelmed by the sudden changes in their lives that they don't have the presence of mind to even think of things like taking photos.

What saved me from having a huge gap in my visually-documented memory were a few experienced, emotionally intelligent nurses who made sure that plenty of photos were taken, even when William's health failed, and who further encouraged us throughout Elliott's stay to document all of his little milestones, as painful as they might have been for us. Because of these incredible individuals, our family has pictures of the good and the bad, the horrific and the beautiful, and of each difficult step forward that we took together, and some of the steps backward.

The NICU can be stunning in its complete takeover of what most parents once thought would be a predictable, beautiful experience: the birth of their baby. The first milestones you witness in the NICU are often those that are in their own ways tragic, if only because they are necessary. Getting off of the oscillating vent, being allowed to hold your baby, nippling, being big enough to wear clothing, transitioning from the isolette. These things are very different than what most of us imagined would be the first milestones; things like smiling, reaching for toys, rolling over, milestones that will likely be many months away for a baby who still has weeks before his/her actual due date or who is struggling with medical issues that prevent them from being able to focus on those actions.

Current trauma research shows that in the healing of trauma, it is important for a person to have an integrated, autobiographical understanding of just what happened. In fact, it's common in all kinds of trauma for individuals to have a response similar to what mine was initially: to want to forget, to deliberately disengage from the experiences at hand, to "shut-down" so to speak. However, research is showing that it's just the opposite that will help us to process trauma in a meaningful way. In thinking about this, I realized that creating a coherent, autobiographical understanding of the NICU had another benefit: helping me to someday explain to Elliott what his first few weeks and months were like, the people that loved him, and to show him the images of his beautiful brother.

Here are a few tips for those new to the NICU, who may be struggling with the exhaustion and stress that the experience brings:

1. Take pictures, a lot of them. As hard as it is to see your baby hooked up to wires, bili lights, monitors, and in an isolette, some day, most or all of these things will be a remnant of the past. This post from Hand To Hold is a wonderful tutorial about artful ways to take photos in the NICU, written by a professional photographer and preemie mom. Even in a circumstance where you may be coping with loss (as we did), take as many photos as you can with your baby. As heartrending as it may be in the moment, some day the photos you take will become precious.

2. Get a lovey for your baby to do size comparison pictures each month. Some NICUs provide babies with loveys, or small stuffed animals to comfort them. Taking a picture to document your baby's growth each month will astound you due to what appears to be astronomical growth (and ultimately for micropreemies, really is!). This is an incredible way to watch your baby grow at their own pace, independently of any charts, and to see how far they've come. It's also a great practice to continue after your baby's discharge from the hospital and through the first year.

 This small poster from EverytinyThing has space on its balloons for each member of your baby's care team to write their name.

This small poster from EverytinyThing has space on its balloons for each member of your baby's care team to write their name.

3.  Take pictures with your baby's primary nurses, doctors and therapists. Get one of the fantastic products over at EverytinyThing so that your baby's team can write their name on your "My NICU Family" print. The people you see every day at the NICU may seem like they are unforgettable, but years later it can be difficult to remember each of your baby's caregivers and put a name to the individuals that had such a profound daily impact on your family's lives. The isolette decorations that Trish sells can also brighten up your baby's isolette and make the space less daunting.

4. Keep a journal. Journaling not only documents each of the things that happen in your day to day NICU life, but it can also serve the important purpose of making you feel better. Journals can help you express and process your emotional response to different circumstances, if simply by providing a space for you to "get it out". I'd like to emphasize that it's important for dads to write about their experience as well. Again, journals not only serve the purpose of providing a distinct memory of the experience for parents, but can also be something of value in telling the NICU story to your baby when they get older, or in sharing with friends and family about what happened. Personally, in revisiting my journal from my babies' NICU stays, I realize just how strong we actually were, and how easy it is to forget what a struggle it once was.

5.  When in doubt, ask your primary nurses for suggestions. Through their experience, nurses have a good sense of the types of things a family can do to generate memories during difficult times. One thing our nurses did for us was take prints of both of our boys' feet and hands (there are some creative ways of doing this that are worth checking out as well!). They also took pictures or wrote notes each time Elliott had a milestone when we weren't there (I still have the note a nurse wrote when he completed his car seat test in the middle of the night!). Additionally, collaborate with your nurses about the things you'd like to have done in a specific way (for example, the first outfit you'd like your baby to wear and letting the nurses know you would like to be there for it).

Many of the practices I took up in the NICU in order to create memories of the circumstance have ended up becoming valuable to me in life after the NICU, particularly journaling. Even though some of these practices may be difficult to fathom in a challenging moment, or may feel unnatural just due to the fact that you've never done them before, have faith that many of them will prove their worth and hold their worth long after your baby's NICU stay is over.

Stay tuned~ a giveaway of EverytinyThing's "My NICU Family" print is coming to NICU Healing's Facebook page soon! Follow our Facebook page to receive updates! 

 

Investigating the Practices of Trauma

In a moment of crisis, the human mind (and body) manifests ways of coping that optimize our chances of survival. In fact, crisis, or trauma, oftentimes prompts our brain circuitry to circumvent the typical ways in which it operates so that we respond quickly and efficiently, leaving much of the process invisible to the conscious mind. Due to its invisibility, the brain's response to trauma leaves a lot of mystery for researchers to unravel; it can be even more difficult to navigate for an individual trying to heal from a traumatic experience. How is it then, that someone can deduce whether the trauma they've experienced has had an impact that's more than what might be considered "typical", or determine whether they might need more help? 

It's sometimes useful to examine "mental health" issues outside of the traditional context assigned them by the world of mainstream psychology. Instead of imagining that trauma, depression, or crisis are a part of you, or that they've somehow become a part of your personality, try to tease out the practices and effects of these notions. In conducting such an investigation, you may be able to find what does and doesn't work for you or your family, and determine whether these practices or effects have become so significant that it might be useful to integrate the help of a professional. 

What does the trauma have you doing? Do you have practices or beliefs specific to trauma that are active in your life? What do they look like? For example, one thing my trauma had me doing was researching, frantically, trying to figure out the various signs and signals that I thought might indicate there was something "wrong" with my son for the entire first year he was home. One sign or another would have me feeling paranoid, anxious, staying up at night, and at the same time paralyzed by fear. When our pediatrician, the specialists at our followup clinic, and various members of our family told me that there was nothing to worry about, it fell upon deaf ears. Upon examination, I realized that I had developed this practice when Elliott was still in the NICU, when it actually served a purpose: at that point, noticing discrete signs or signals that he might have difficulty with something or need more help in some arena gave me the ability to ask for guidance from the various medical professionals helping him on a daily basis. Panicking about things when he was an older baby, on the other hand, didn't serve much of a purpose except to manifest difficulty in feeling attachment with him, promote exhaustion, and create anxiety that tainted anything we did with a level of unease that didn't feel right.

The practices of trauma are wide and varied, and can range from things like not being able to sleep at night due to perseverative thoughts or fears, drinking to escape memories of the events that occurred, unrelenting fear that a similar event will occur again, or the inability to imagine a life without these fears. Some effects of trauma are more difficult to put your finger on, as they are physiological. They can include things like cold sweats, unpredictable crying or outbursts of anger, or simply feeling "outside of yourself" when in an environment that triggers memories of the crisis. Other practices of trauma may not be quite so harmful, and are just as useful to notice. These practices can include things like noticing milestones unique to your NICU baby, letting go of the unrealistic expectations society has of parents, accepting the unpredictability of the day-to-day by practicing mindfulness, or reaching out to help others going through a similar circumstance. 

What promotes these practices? It can help to look at the various individuals, belief systems or values in your community that encourage the practices/effects of trauma you see active in your life, both the good and the bad. How do these individuals or institutions promote it?

To go back to the personal example I gave above, I realized that I had a deeply ingrained notion of what I now like to refer to as "the milestone police" (thank you for the terminology, online NICU support community!). Based on the books that I had read, I had unconsciously developed a very strong and particular sense of what I thought child development should look like. Because I held that notion much higher than my own intuition, I fell into a feedback loop in which everything seemed like it was somehow wrong. This was compounded by the fact that for 88 days while Elliott was in the NICU, I had to become accustomed to the fact that every day, something could very well go wrong, very easily and very quickly. In order to survive the circumstance, I had to get used to expecting the unexpected. Learning to let go of those shoulds and those fears, regardless of Elliott's outcome, gave me the ability to at least be present in the moment with him, and to focus on the things that I could do that were useful as opposed to exhausting (keep in mind, this is not to say that if you have a sense that something is awry with your baby that you should not reach out to your pediatrician or a specialist-- this example is an example, and not meant to be thought of as a replacement for medical or psychological advice).

Other examples of cultural constructs that promote the effects of trauma could be things like the isolation of going through a circumstance that no one in your community has ever spoken of or, potentially, experienced, which then can make your fears feel all the more horrifying to face. It can be "Dr. Google", or the practice of googling things and finding terrifying information that can send you into a tailspin of anxiety. It can be your family's support in your creation of a NICU journal or their curiosity about hearing your story, that encourages your ability to speak up about what you've been through and integrate it into your family's biography. 

If you carefully examine the practices in which you participate, you will oftentimes find that people or belief systems play a role in their existence. It helps to know what those are, and to cultivate the positive influences, and minimize, or at least acknowledge, the negative to the best of your ability. 

Are these practices of trauma ok with you? Take a look at the various practices/effects that you've found operating in your life and do a brief analysis. Are these things working for you? Are they working for your family? Your partnership?

As I mentioned above, sometimes the practices of trauma serve an important purpose at one point in your life (e.g. the NICU), but later, take away from your experience of things or prevent you from enjoying life in the way you want. Do you feel empowered to change these practices on your own, or could you use the assistance of another person in moving forward?

It can sometimes be very difficult to articulate the practices and effects of trauma, in which case it can help to have assistance in identifying what's happening and figuring out how to go on. Sometimes, the practices, effects or beliefs that you've developed can be so vast or overshadowing that it feels impossible to change them on your own, in which case, it may be useful to find an ally. On the other hand, sometimes a deep examination of the circumstances can empower you to find a path that works for you and your family on your own. Either way, making a space to examine the effects and practices that a crisis may have inspired in your life is a powerful start in moving towards healing.

 

For further reading: 

Coping with the "Zen" of the NICU: A Breathing Exercise

Being in the NICU is a swift baptism into a world in which nothing is predictable. My feeling was that once we were used to one circumstance, when the words started to make sense or we felt stable, as soon as we started to feel that sweet pang of familiarity, it quickly vanished into the NICU mire and another difficult circumstance would present itself.

My least favorite phrase of all-time, "it's a rollercoaster" felt like some kind of a sick mockery of the groundless world we had suddenly found ourselves floating in. The first time I heard that phrase was the morning after my son Elliott had had a pulmonary hemorrhage and had to be ventilated. His brother William was found to have a grade four bilateral brain bleed and severe infection, and it was related to us that "the 'honeymoon period' [was] over." Welcome to the NICU.

However apt the rollercoaster analogy, it's incredibly difficult to become accustomed to the monumental shifts and surprises, both bad and good, that happen on a fleeting and frequent basis in the NICU. After some time living in that unpredictable world, I realized that the momentary nature of it, the way that it forces one to be "present" and mindful of each breath that you or your little one(s) take in, has this zen-like quality to it. After all, when your baby is in the NICU you can't allow yourself to think one day ahead, even three hours ahead, without making the mistake of creating a false security that can be shattered with one bad blood draw, one bradycardia event, one bad test result. This ability to be "present in the moment", or mindful, is considered something to strive for in Buddhist meditation and mindfulness theory. The challenge is that it is very difficult to stay present emotionally, especially in easier times, when it's simple to distract your mind with the entertainment and interest of day to day life. The NICU, for what it is worth, oftentimes forces the ability to be present in the moment upon its patients and their parents.  

...the human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that’s set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another.
— Pema Chodron, "Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change"

One author whose work spoke to me whilst our family was in the NICU was Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun whose books about coping with suffering proved to be incredibly useful in living through the experience. Her books "When Things Fall Apart" and "Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change" speak to the notion of losing your grounding in the world, and how in losing that, one can find incredible strength in learning how to face your fears, embrace the unpredictable nature of the world around you, grow spiritually, and find commonality with others that face the pain in their lives. In "Living Beautifully..." she wrote, "...the human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that's set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another."

Here is a simple breathing exercise/meditation that can help promote calmness, even in difficult times. It is designed to help you learn how to ground yourself, even in times of intense stress. The practice can be useful for NICU parents facing the stress of the hospital, but can also be implemented by anyone facing a traumatic circumstance who feels the need for grounding or feels overwhelmed by their anxiety or suffering. I used to love doing it while I held Elliott skin-to-skin in the hospital, and got so used to the practice that I implemented it at home long after he was discharged. At this point I consider it a tool that I have in facing any kind of stress, and use it whenever I feel a sense of anxiety or overwhelm.

Note: Before beginning, check-in with yourself that you're able to safely do a breathing exercise. Be mindful of how you are feeling, especially towards yourself. It's important to approach a stance of forgiveness and self-love in participating in this exercise. If at any point during this breathing exercise you feel triggered or overwhelmed, stop immediately and take notice of the things around you. Call a nurse, your partner, a family member or a friend and tell them how you are feeling. 

  • Sit comfortably, with both feet on the ground and your back against a supportive chair. Close your eyes. Allow your arms to relax. Allow your body to relax. Become aware of your breath, how it feels. Breathe in to the count of six, and breathe out to the count of six. Count as slowly as you can, and breathe in as deeply as possible and out as slowly as possible. Feel your breath in your lungs, notice it. Relax into your breath.

 

  • Once you have established a slow and steady breathing pattern, if you'd like, you can discontinue counting as you inhale/exhale. Notice your breath, how it feels in your body. If your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath and focus on it. Treat the thoughts that enter your mind as passing. If it's useful, you can name them as thoughts or feelings, notice them, let them pass, and return to concentrate on your breath. Connect with how you feel physically in this very moment. Be present with your breathing.

 

  •  Continue in this manner for as long as you'd (reasonably) like to, but for at least 3-5 minutes. When you stop, notice how you feel. Are there any parts of your body that are particularly noticeable in this moment?  Were there any parts of your body that felt particularly stressed? Were there any thoughts dominating your ability to let go of thinking?

 

  • As you accustom yourself to taking time for this meditation, try to delineate more time for it each day. If you'd like, you can even try doing it while holding your baby. As I said before, I think skin-to-skin contact is preferable just due to the closeness it provides, but it's ok if you hold them swaddled. Make sure that you have the ability to sit comfortably and safely hold your baby. Relax into your chair with them snuggled close to you, breathe in their beautiful scent, and find grounding/love/compassion, even in the groundlessness.

Breathing exercises, as simple as they may seem, have the profound ability to induce calmness and presence, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Although at first it may be challenging to let go of thoughts and stresses, with practice, breathing exercises can promote your ability to be present even in fearful times, can provide you with a sense of connection not only with your baby, but with other parents going through similar circumstances, and can make clear what it is that you can hold onto, even in times where it feels like there isn't anything, that you're floating far away from the shore.

For more relaxation techniques and exercises, check out this PDF from the Trauma Center, or go to their website for this and other resources in coping with trauma.