Life as a NICU Parent: When You Feel Helpless or Hopeless

Depressed helpless woman with eyes closed and hands over face sitting on floor 1

In our last post, we talked about the roller coaster of the NICU and coping, specifically, with anger. The NICU can feel like the worst place on earth and the best place on earth. You can rocket between fear, guilt, and anger in minutes. Your emotions can feel so overwhelming that you may become numb, or start searching irrationally for ways to make the situation better. NICU parents often go through a process similar to grief, even though the baby was born living. Parents often feel helpless or hopeless.  

You may cope better with the emotional stress of being separated from your child by understanding and normalizing your feelings.

Bargaining or questioning is often a way for someone to try to escape the source of their grief. NICU parents may rehash the same what-if’s over and over. “What if I had started my prenatal vitamins earlier? Was I under too much stress at work while I was pregnant? Did I do something wrong? Why couldn’t my doctor prevent this? Am I being punished?” In an effort to escape these thoughts, NICU parents may set up “deals” in their imaginations: “If I stay here and watch over him all the time, he’ll get better faster,” or, “If only I could breastfeed as much as I wanted, she would get onto the growth chart sooner.” It’s hard to give up control over your child and the situation.

Try to channel fear into advocating for your baby.

Request to room-in together with your baby as long as possible. Pump when you’re separated and bring the milk to her whenever you can. Ask questions about his care and treatment options. Being your baby’s voice can empower you and help you feel more like a parent.

No matter how long the NICU stay is, the sleep deprivation and fear that often happen after childbirth will likely be heightened and prolonged. This can lead to exhaustion and depression.

You may feel:

  • lonely if your partner has to go back to work or care for your other children.
  • concerned if you don’t experience a strong bond initially with your baby (which can happen after traumatic births or long NICU stays).
  • guilty.
  • despair when anticipating going home with baby and then experience a setback.
  • hopeless about things ever getting better.

If thinking ahead to a brighter future is too hard right now, it’s okay to stay where you are, fear, sadness, anger, and all. But let other people step into that place with you and share the burden. Ask the hospital staff about NICU and preemie support groups. Get screened regularly for postpartum depression and anxiety. Find someone who can visit you while you’re away from the baby. Choose a stuffed animal or blanket that reminds you of your baby to hold when you’re separated.

You don’t have to feel helpless or hopeless alone.


If you are experiencing these feelings now and are looking for some hope, check back soon for The Silver Lining, our fourth and final post in our Life as a NICU Parent series. Miss the previous series posts? Check out Part 2: Coping and Anger, Part 1: Finding Out, and our Introduction.

If you or someone you know is in need of doula support during or after a NICU stay, please get in touch on our Contact page or by phone. We are honored to provide support during this emotional time.