As a new parent, you are filled with hopes, dreams, and excitement. You don’t know what to expect, but, ultimately, you figure it will all work out. Then, sometimes, the rug is pulled out from underneath you and all of your hopes, dreams, and excitement come crashing down. This is what happened to me at 25 weeks pregnant when I went into labor. Two weeks later, I had my twins via C-section.
When a child is born significantly premature, as a parent you are warned that because your child’s circulatory system isn’t mature, they will often “forget to breathe” until it is matured. Usually, it takes is a nudge to the baby to remember, and they start breathing again. Usually.
Then, there are the other times. The times where as a parent, you find yourself holding your breath too. The times where you have nudged them and their heart rate continues to fall and where their chest remains eerily still. The times where their color starts to change from the normal baby pink to a slight shade of grayish blue. The times where the nurses go from looking calm to slightly panicked. The times that as the nurses work frantically around you, your world remains still as you sit there helpless. Numb.
Though your baby is being monitored in the NICU, more and more throughout their stay you find yourself holding your breath as a parent. You hold your breath as you walk into the NICU each day because you are not sure what you will find: Will your baby’s nursery be calm or will there be doctors surrounding your baby working frantically to save them? You hold your breath as the doctors make the rounds: What setback will you face today? You hold your breath as you leave the hospital each night: What will happen while you are away? You hold your breath each time the phone rings: What news does the hospital have for you?
The longer your stay in the NICU, the greater the toll it has on your body, mind, and soul. Every part of you grows weary. As the doctors track how often your baby has forgotten to breathe today, no one is tracking you and how many times you have “forgotten to breathe” today. Each time you hold your breath, a piece of you breaks away. You become a shadow of yourself.
No one knows what to say to you. Because of this, sometimes they say nothing at all, which leaves you feeling further isolated and alone. The silence is overwhelming. You just need to know someone cares and for someone to remind you to breathe, but the only time your phone rings, it is from the hospital.
People assume that once you are able to take your baby home, your trauma has ended, but you continue to hold your breath. Though you are physically far away from the NICU, you are not far away emotionally. All the things you have seen and experienced are still spinning in your head. PTSD for NICU parents is a very real thing, and how could it not be? They have seen their children in an extreme state of vulnerability. There were likely days they weren’t sure they were going to take their baby home. Those days don’t just go away. They linger in the mind of a parent, sometimes years later.
The well-being of NICU parents is often neglected both during their stay and after. Everyone is so focused on the well-being of the baby that they don’t stop to think what it must be like as a parent. Think about what it would be like to be told your child was going to forget to breathe regularly. Putting everything else that is experienced in the NICU aside, that in itself is a terrible thing. Imagine watching your baby’s chest rise and fall, and it just stopping. It doesn’t matter how “expected” the doctors tell you it is; as a parent, it’s a gut-sinking, paralyzing experience. It creates a deep-rooted fear that sticks with a person. You are forever afraid of experiencing it again. So, you continue to hold your breath.
How can you help? If you know somebody experiencing a NICU stay, birth trauma, or any type of trauma really, reach out. Be there. Remind them to breathe. Remaining silent is the worst thing you can do. Silence is easily mistaken as not caring. Show them you care. Send gas cards, food gift cards, coffee, or a text message saying you are thinking of them. They need that reminder to take a moment for themselves, even if it’s just a moment, to breathe and stay grounded. Be the person to check in on them when nobody else is. Most importantly, don’t dismiss their pain. Don’t assume everything is ok because in your mind, their trauma seems to be over. They are on a different timeline than you. They have seen and felt things that take time to heal. Respect that.
If you are the one experiencing trauma yourself, please reach out to others. Don’t neglect yourself. A weary, exhausted soul needs time to rest, even if it’s just for a moment. Be patient with others who don’t know what to say, and reach out to them if they don’t reach out to you. Most importantly, take that moment you so desperately need, and breathe.