PTSD after a Traumatic Birth and the NICU
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
There's a baby in there
Have you ever considered that a traumatic birth and NICU stay could lead to a diagnosis of PTSD? Is it possible that you're dealing with trauma too? It's more common than you think. When it happened to me, it took me completely by surprise. I knew people whose babies had been in the NICU for a few days, but I didn't know anyone who had PTSD from it. In fact, when my baby first went to the NICU, I took it in stride. I knew he'd be home in a few days. Except, he wasn't.
It took 34 days and extreme medical intervention to bring my baby home. My son, born in 2017, was two weeks early, in distress. I needed an emergency C-section. We had no idea there were problems, so we delivered in our local hospital. They weren't equipped to deal with that level of distress, so he was immediately transferred to a larger hospital an hour away. It was a shock after we'd so carefully planned an all-natural, drug-free delivery with a midwife.
Then that hospital wasn't equipped to deal with his level of distress, so he was transferred to a third hospital. When he was four days old, he went on the last-resort life-support system called ECMO. We were told that if that didn't work, there was nothing more that could be done. We were also told that the very thing that might save his life could cause all kinds of other complications and lifelong struggles. He was medically paralyzed and on a ventilator. Two IV poles full of medication needed to be pumped into his body.
The great news is that he got better and has no lasting side-effects of ECMO. It took a long time before we got to that place though. There were many months when we didn't know how things would turn out. Even on the day that they released him to go home, we made the 90-minute drive to our house with him under constant watch. An oxygen tank banged around between the seats of our SUV.
Even though I was afraid and overwhelmed by a new diagnosis and all the medical equipment it required to care for him, I got out of bed every morning. I cared for the baby and my older children. I spent massive amounts of time pumping and tube-feeding him while working around supplemental oxygen tubes and machines. Then the kids and my husband got a cold. Of course, they gave it to the baby with the fragile lungs.
One step at a time, I handled all the new responsibilities while I figured out how to take care of the ones I already had. Sleep-deprived, physically hurting, and under tremendous pressure, I kept going.
At no point in all of this difficulty did I want to hurt myself or my children. In the early days, I did think of running away. Completely unbidden, I caught myself imagining laying on a beach somewhere, completely free of responsibility. But I didn't leave. I stayed and did the hard things. I also went to church, got groceries, did laundry, and kept everyone properly clothed. Some of the time I remembered to pay the bills and go to the appointments we made.
I waded through those appointments with doctors and specialists, therapists, and social workers. I figured out things like the Board of Developmental Disabilities, WIC, Medicaid, and home health nurses. As I struggled to feed him, I researched his health conditions, medications, and treatments. I became an expert in my baby.
I cried a lot. My baby spent much of his time in pain, struggling to breathe and eat. It was heart-breaking. I spoke openly to those in my inner circle about the shock and sadness that clouded my heart. But when it was time to act, I dried my tears and got it done.
I don’t write these things about myself to brag, but to show that PTSD and depression aren't always obvious. Even though I continued to function as a mother, there was a moment when I realized something was very wrong.
A friend was in her 8th month of pregnancy and she lost her baby. The much-loved and desired baby was gone. She had to go through labor and delivery for a stillborn daughter. Suddenly, I couldn't get out of bed because of my grief for her. I shut down, turning over responsibility for my children to my husband and mother-in-law.
After 6 days of intense grief, I realized that my response to this situation was not normal. In the month before that, several people had suggested that I seek help for my grief and sadness. I'd dismissed them. To me, "postpartum depression" meant a mother can’t function or wants to hurt her children. What I felt was exhaustion that couldn’t be explained by lack of sleep. I couldn’t think clearly. I struggled to find what word I wanted to say. Making decisions became nearly impossible.
I excused my difficulties because anyone in my situation would struggle. On a massive learning curve, my brain was FULL. I regularly dealt with medical providers who didn’t know more than the most basic information about my son's diagnosis. I was on high alert for his health risks and regularly afraid. I had good reasons for all my challenges.
But I didn’t have a good reason to cry for 6 days over the pain of a woman who wasn't a close relative or best friend. When I quietly admitted to some dear friends that I might need help, the wheels turned quickly. They didn't wait for me to say it again. They immediately helped me get the medical and therapeutic help that has been life-changing.
I told my new therapist that I didn’t want to sit around and talk about what happened. I’d talked about it enough. But every time an ambulance passed our car, I cried. An ambulance carrying my baby’s tiny body had passed our car as we drove to the level 4 NICU. Every time I remembered my C-section and the way my newborn baby was whisked away from me before I could even see his face, I felt like my entire body literally turned upside down.
My therapist told me about something called EMDR. It’s for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was surprised when the therapist said I had all the signs of PTSD. I thought of soldiers back from war, unable to sleep from flashbacks and unable to hold a job or function in society. But trauma is trauma, and I had definitely experienced trauma. I learned that PTSD in parents of NICU babies isn’t that unusual. How much worse does it get than almost losing your newborn baby?
My therapist explained that our brains don’t store trauma the same way as regular memories. It’s hard for our bodies and minds to accept that these things happened in the past and aren’t happening today. Therefore, when things happen that trigger our trauma-response, we aren’t responding to what’s happening in the moment. We’re responding to what happened in the past, plus what’s happening in the present. Basically, we over-react because we're not only dealing with the situation at hand, but the layers of all situations that lie in our memories.
That sounded reasonable, although I felt like I could easily distinguish the present from the past. She said she could help me get better. I would remember what happened, but it wouldn’t haunt me. I’d know that it was sad and difficult, but I wouldn’t become emotional every time I talked about it. She said I could be a lot better within a few weeks, and that dealing with the trauma of my situation could also help me feel better physically.
Extremely skeptical, I decided to try. It was hard to believe that I might actually experience the things she explained. But after a few weeks, I found that she was 100% correct and learned to trust the process. Within a few weeks I felt much better. Within a couple of months, the fog lifted. As hard as it is to believe, I now remember my baby's birth and NICU stay with feelings of warmth and comfort for those who saved his life. What happened was hard, but we were cocooned in the competent embrace of those we’d placed around us long before this event happened. They did exactly what they were trained to do in this situation.
The medical professionals cared for us. My husband and I clung to one another. His parents and our babysitter cared for our children. Our church family and friends helped. Loved and supported in the most beautiful ways, everything they did worked! We made it through.
I can see that truth now, where before all I saw was the shock and trauma.
It was very hard to take the time to go to those appointments. He had so many appointments with doctors and therapists, most an hour from home, that time was precious. I had two EMDR appointments a week that left me emotionally raw. The therapist taught me coping skills though, and I worked through the most difficult things.
As a child, my parents drilled two verses into my head. “God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7 - and - “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13
These verses are true and got me through the most difficult times. Through Christ, I had the strength to make it through hard things. Through Christ, I was powerful, full of love, and mentally competent. And through the power of Christ, my weakness was addressed and healed. I am so thankful.
I write these things and post them here in hope that my story might help someone else recognize and seek to heal trauma and depression in themselves or a loved one. I want to offer hope for healing. If you are experiencing things you think might be trauma-related, please ask for help. Please don’t let finances or time-constraints stop you from healing. Not only will your healing impact you, but it will greatly impact your family – especially your children. (My ability to care for my children and be the mom I want to be has dramatically improved with the help I’ve received.)
Emdria is a reputable organization for EMDR therapists. This link will help you find a local therapist to help you. EMDR is not talk-therapy. You do not have to rehash every detail of the trauma to receive help. It shouldn’t take years, but rather weeks or months. Many insurance plans cover it, and many Christian therapists offer financial assistance for those who need it. Please ask for help if you think you might need it.
Lastly, please feel free to contact me if you want to discuss it more or have questions. If one person can be helped because of what I’ve been through, then I feel like there’s a purpose in the pain and God is redeeming it for His glory.
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