Mindfulness in the NICU - Strategies to Help Any NICU Parent

Mindfulness is a hot topic these days, gathering attention far and wide.  Big businesses such as Google recognize the value of mindfulness training, people of all faiths and walks of life are incorporating mindfulness into their daily lives as a way to find balance, to regain some calm, and lighten their load.

So what exactly is mindfulness, and what does it have to do with the NICU?  Jon Kabat Zinn, the western mindfulness authority, defines it as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally." [1] Basically, mindfulness means bringing awareness to this very moment, without judgement or attachment, just being present. Here is another excellent PDF article entitled "What is Mindfulness" that I believe will help further your understanding.

The most basic mindfulness practices involve focusing attention on your breath, as a way to concentrate on the present moment.  It involves allowing your thoughts and feelings to arise, which they will certainly do, without either clinging to them or pushing them away, but just letting them take their natural course. Becoming distracted is inevitable, but that's okay, because the process is about being willing to notice where your thoughts take you, and then bringing your attention back to the present.  I want to encourage you to read this article by Michael Stanclift, N.D. because, as he says, he "can describe what's going on in plain English to help you understand, and maybe have a new appreciation for mindfulness " but he also has a clear scientific explanation which I appreciate greatly.

One thing mindfulness is NOT, it is not about just checking out or making yourself feel happy or forget your reality.   As Stanclift points out, "A mindfulness practice isn't about being in a blissful mood all the time, it's about being in touch with reality, and accepting that reality. And accepting isn't the same as liking." So when your baby is in the NICU and you certainly don't feel like being blissful, don't worry, mindfulness is still a valuable practice. Just being, really being, with your situation can be incredibly healing. 

Research is showing it can help with PTSD, which is something the NICU can create for many families. Research shows it can help with depression, which is also something the NICU can create for many families.  It's free, it's pretty darn easy because it's hard to do it wrong, so why on earth wouldn't you give it a try?

Many practices that promote mindfulness resemble meditation, although there are many ways of doing it.  I'll share with you three basic mindfulness practices that can be used under any circumstances, and then I'll also share with you three practices I've created for my parents to try out while they are in the NICU.  Give them all a try!

Basic meditation instruction (how I learned it way back when):

Sit comfortably, with an upright position. You can sit on a cushion on the floor with your legs crossed, or you can just sit up in a comfortable chair. Imagine the crown of your head lifting up towards the sky, but feel your body grounded into where you are seated.  Be aware of your surroundings, feel your body and what is holding it up.

Close your eyes, or soften your gaze if you prefer to keep your eyes open (I'm an eye open kind of gal.) Take a few nice deep breaths, and then focus your attention on your breathing, allowing it to return to a normal, comfortable rate.  Notice your in breath, notice your out breath.  Feel your lungs fill, feel them empty. Just keep returning your focus to your breath.

When you notice thoughts arise, allow them. See them. Acknowledge them ("I'm judging" or "I'm angry" or "I'm thinking about my list of errands" or whatever comes up. Stuff always comes up, even for the most practiced meditators!) Notice it and label it, see it for what it is. Have a little fun seeing just what crazy stuff runs amok in your brain! Then, when you realize you've lost your focus on your breath, bring your focus back to your breath.


That's it. Do this over and over. Keep focusing on your breath, notice that it's hard to keep focusing on your breath, see the thoughts that get in your way, label them and then let them go on their merry way so you can go back to focusing on your breath. (I like to label the thought, for example "thinking about work again!" and then I imagine lovingly placing those thoughts onto a passing cloud and watching them float away.  When they've floated away, I can re-focus on my breathing.) Repeat. For as long as you can.

Start simply, with perhaps 5 minutes. If you can do 5 minutes your first time, CONGRATS! Don't beat yourself up if even those 5 minutes are difficult. If you feel antsy, annoyed, totally distracted, way off track, don't worry about it. Just beginning to recognize what's going on in your mind is exactly what you need to be doing. That IS mindfulness training, and you're doing it perfectly. See if you can work up to 15 minutes, maybe a half an hour.

The mini-moment:

This is one very easy beginner's mindful practice which I enjoy, and it comes from Elisha Goldstein, in this article in Mindful magazine, (please read it in entirety to get the back story):

"What if, once an hour, you brought your life back to what is happening right now? Elisha Goldstein offers this practice.

  1. Body – Notice how it is positioned, if there’s any tension anywhere.
  2. Emotions – Are you angry, frustrated, calm, happy, sad, stressed?
  3. Thoughts – Are you worrying, stewing, or rehashing? Are you stuck in the past or future?
  4. Location – Where are you?

Just take these four steps and then breathe. You’ve done it."

Now, Try some NICU-specific meditations:

I've created 3 NICU meditations I think might help for the very specific and very stressful NICU environment - give 'em a try!


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