Managing big feelings:

The neonatal journey is often described by neonatal families and staff as an emotional rollercoaster with lots of ups and downs. If you are feeling like this, you are not alone.

Looking after yourself

If you have a baby on a neonatal unit you may feel a whole range of things. You may find the whole experience overwhelming, you may feel frightened, upset or angry. You may feel fine in one place and not fine when you go somewhere else. You may feel ok.

If you work on a neonatal unit you may also feel a whole range of things. The work can be amazing, frustrating, interesting, distressing and hard.

Babies and children get big feelings too. Sometimes they tell us, but more often we see the signs in the ways they behave. They need adults to help them make sense of their feelings. Even tiny babies need help to manage their emotions

Why do I feel this way?

Having a new baby always brings a whole range of emotions (not to mention the hormones which can also make you feel all over the place). When your baby is born too early or is unwell this adds so many more feelings and so many more issues to deal with. Being around sick babies and parents who are distressed can also be challenging and impact us. 

When our brains are worried, upset or stressed it can be hard to even think.

What can I do?

First, just get yourself to stop, just for a minute, and take a breath. If you are short of time, you can do this whilst sitting on the loo or getting a nappy out of the bag.

Next, ask yourself ‘What am I feeling right now?’ Try to name your feelings. We know this makes a difference to the bits of your brain that are working.

Then, do something that you know will help, something you’ve used in the past when you are stressed. It might be talking to someone, going for a walk or writing down your feelings.

What helps children?

  • Use wondering to name their feelings (‘I wonder if you’re feeling angry that mummy is at the hospital a lot?’ or ‘I wonder if you feel worried about the new baby?’). This gives them the chance to think about what they are feeling and make sense of them
  • Help them make sense of what is happening using stories or books. Book list about feelings
  • Spend time with them doing fun things or just cuddling, reading and singing together. 
  • Give them things to look forward to.

What helps babies?

  • Be near them. They can hear and smell you and this helps them feel calm.
  • Talk calmly and gently to them when you are about to do something.
  • When you can, stroke, touch or hold them. This regulates their big feelings.
  • Spend time just watching them. This will give you clues as to what stresses and calms them.

What can help me?

  • Name your feelings to yourself (I feel really anxious today or I don’t know how to name this feeling in my chest). This helps us make sense of what we are going through.
  • Talk to someone. A colleague, a friend, a member of staff. This helps you and them, as it shows that everyone can get big feelings.
  • If your unit has a Psychologist or psychotherapist talk to them. Talking to them doesn’t mean you have a problem, they are just the person whose job it is to support people. 
  • Breathe. When you don’t have time for anything else, you still have time to slow your breathing. 
  • Use strategies which have worked in the past. If going for a walk has been useful, do that. If you like doing a yoga class, do that. If singing/reading/running/talking has helped before, try it again.
  • Get sleep when you can. This can be difficult if you’re working shifts, managing other children or have a lot of big feelings. Try and nap or get yourself into a routine which allows you to rest.
  • Write down how you’re feeling or even just what is happening every day. This helps our brain process what we are going through.
  • Find a book which is helpful, and normalises how you are feeling. Book list for parents and clinicians

How can I help other adults?

  • Where you can, be kind. Remember sometimes people are unreasonable, illogical or rude when they are struggling.
  • Look after yourself. To be compassionate we need to be ok in ourselves. 
  • Notice when someone is struggling. Say ‘I wonder how you are because I’ve noticed that…(you look sad/you seem angry/you aren’t yourself today)
  • If you don’t know what to say or how to help, say that too. It’s better to say something than ignore someone in pain. They will be grateful for your honesty. Remember people don’t always want help or solutions, sometimes they just want to be seen and heard.

Where can I get support?

Is there someone you know who is a good listener? Can you give them a call? Often the best people to help us are already in our lives. Connect up with people who are supportive and feel helpful.

If your unit has a psychologist or psychotherapist, they are a great place to start too. They understand just what it is like to have a baby on a neonatal unit and will be able to support you, or signpost you onto someone who can. They are there for everyone on the unit and lots of people find it helpful to have someone to chat to. Whether you feel you are coping fine or feel you are really struggling, or anything in between, they are here for you.

There are places in the community who may be able to help. If you’re not sure, your GP is always a good place to start, but here are some other places you could try:

Health Visiting

Even when your baby is on the NNU, you still have an allocated Health Visitor. Do make contact with them if you want someone to talk to or someone to help you think about bringing your baby home, about your baby’s brothers/sisters and what support there is in the local community. They will know about local baby groups, where to go to get your baby weighed and other ways you can look after yourself.

Staff Support

If you are a member of staff, you could try the staff support offered by your trust. Some also have arrangements with other trusts or organisations. Look on the trust intranet for more information.

Maternal Mental Health Services (MMHS)

These services offer support to mothers and partners from conception and in the first two years of your child’s life. Usually their support is organised into ‘pathways’ providing support to parents who have experienced loss, trauma and anxiety about pregnancy or birth. They are a good place to start if you are struggling during your baby(ies) admission to the NNU or once you are home. These teams are new, so not every area has their team in place yet. They are established in North London, and setting up now in South London.

Perinatal Mental Health Services (PMHS)

These services provide more support to people struggling with anxiety, depression or other difficulties. They tend to offer support for up to 1 year after your baby is born. You can be referred to this team via your GP.

Increasing access to psychological therapies (IAPT)

IAPT teams are available to anyone (staff, parents, family) who might need support around their mental health or wellbeing. Often you can refer yourself, but you can also ask your GP for help finding out about them. They tend to offer virtual support via the phone, messaging and video calls as well as some face to face work (very often at health centres or GP practices).

Peer Support

You might want to talk to someone who has been through the same things as you. You can refer yourself to these teams.

If you’re struggling, reach out and ask for help. It’s a brave thing to do and most people are glad they did.

Whatever you are going through, you are not alone.