Today, 2nd February, is #TimeToTalk Day – a day where people are encouraged to break the silence and to speak out about mental health.
So, perhaps it’s best to start by shining a light on the world of neonatal care. After all, NICU remains a mysterious and unknown place to those who have had no reason to be there.
The neonatal unit is a place of worry and uncertainly. Things can change day-to-day, hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute. Treatment plans or daily cares can be changed overnight and there is a panic that strikes to your very core when the unit telephones or if your baby is not in their incubator space when you arrive.
The neonatal unit is not somewhere you can plan or prepare for. It is a medical world where control is taken away from you and helpless parents watch their babies from behind the incubator walls.
It is a world of ups and downs; lines and wires, monitors and alarms. A hospital ward full of tiny lives, where the emotions of hope and fear, joy and guilt go hand in hand.
At times the heat of the unit can leave you feeling trapped as nurses wisper and hurriedly attend to the sickest babies. There is the constant hum of breathing machines as dinging alarms interrupt without warning – the noise becomes your soundtrack to neonatal care.
There are security buzzers at the entrance to the unit – “it’s Samuels mum” I would say over the intercom. I felt distant, certainly not like a mum. I’d not held my baby, I hadn’t fed him or clothed him. I hadn’t even really seen his face. How could I be his mum? I was lost.
Feeling watched you attend to the simplest of cares such as changing a nappy. Are you doing it right? Why is the monitor flashing, was that line meant to go there? Limbs so tiny that the weight of them doesn’t register in your hands and skin so fragile your terrified you’ll break them.
The feelings of emptiness and loss are so great that you hurt physically. My chest ached where my baby should have laid his head and my body cried for the baby who should have still been inside.
Feelings so raw you can’t make sense of what has happened. Feelings so conflicting and powerful that they last long after bringing your baby home.
And the NICU soundtrack? The ding ding ding of monitors? Yep – they send me right back to where it all started.
So today, on #TimeToTalk Day, I write about neonatal intensive care and the trauma of premature birth to start a conversation. To explain why 2 in 5 mothers of premature babies experience mental health difficulties – and to say “you are not alone”.
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