Some of these I did. Some of these I wish I did. I found having Joseph in hospital one of the most challenging times in my life, and as regular readers will know it had a massive impact on my long term mental health. On World Mental Health Day I wanted to write about this journey and how we can perhaps help our mental health during this time.
1. Stay connected. Life on NICU is hard, sterile, cold, scary, exhilirating, alienating all those things and more. Find ways to stay connected to real life when you can. Most important of all try and stay connected to your baby, despite what is happening this is your baby that you made and you are doing your best to be an amazing parent. Your baby needs you.
2. Family centred care will help you feel like a parent and will enhance opportunities to bond which will help your own mental health. You can find out more about Family Centred Care on the Bliss website. You can also direct your hospital there too for tips and guidance. Family Centred Care will help with point one, keeping you connected and at the centre of what is happening with your baby.
3. Write things down. It doesn't have to be a diary, I couldn't manage that, but just thoughts, motivational things, fears, worries even just doodling or drawing. I remember writing "now is not forever" over and over. Some people blog. The beautiful Mother Scuffer is keeping a blog of her baby's journey at the moment and its simply beautiful.
4. Listen to music. My ipod was often in my ears especially at distressing times. I listened to music I knew well, that would give me comfort and solace. It also helped to lessen some of the aural trauma of NICU. Anyone who has had a child on monitoring will understand what I mean. The beeps never truly leave you.
5. Talk. There is increasing clinical evidence that talking during a NICU stay will help alleviate symptoms of PTSD. Maybe your unit will have a counselling service, not all do. I found the chaplaincy service at our hospital invaluable they were all trained counsellors and didn't talk about religion unless asked specifically. Bliss have a helpline and a message board. And there are lots of sources of support from parents who have sat where you are right now.
6. Maintain your friendships. I admit I shut friends out, I didn't know what to say to them or how to behave, the situation just seemed so alien. I now understand everyone wanted to help me. Don't be afraid to show emotion. I found Facebook the best way of maintiaining friendships. Some of the messages I received will never leave me. Comfort and support came from unlikely sources.
7. Take time out as a couple. If you are in a relationship, take some time out together. At weekends we would go to the unit together then go out for lunch, buy something for Joseph then one or both of us would go back. We went out for meals a few times. It's important to have time away together.
8. Eat and drink well. Try and eat well. It's hard especially relying on hospital food. I used to buy little packets of fresh fruit, and I drank a lot of smoothies and juices during this time. I usually avoid such drinks due to calories, but your body needs lots of nutrition and sometimes when stressed drinking is easier than eating. Keep your fluids up too. Good nutrition will help your mental health, and just eating something enjoyable like a fresh mango or a crisp apple will help focus your mind.
9. Be honest. If things are getting hard, be honest firstly to yourself, then tell someone. I found in hospital I was ok, because I knew I had to take care of myself and I did do, when I took Joseph home the wheels fell off. It wasn't until I was at baby massage bawling my eyes out that I realised I had a problem. It's ok to say you are not coping, no one is going to think badly of you and people want to help you.
10. Support others. Sometimes in trying times helping someone else can give you a sense of well being and help you feel more connected. It could be little things like helping someone find their way in the hospital, or taking one of the mums for a coffee. I made little bibs for some of the other babies. I'd often welcome new parents to the unit, and pop out for coffee and cake with my new friends.
What are your mental health tips for surviving NICU?