New Release: Mental Health Support for NICU Parents

Marisa Perera
July 14, 2022
4 min read

You’ve been waiting months to meet your little one, only to be told that you can’t quite hold him or her just yet, that they will need to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for days…maybe weeks…maybe even months. 

As any parent will tell you, having a baby in the NICU is incredibly challenging. Parents are confronted with new levels of anxiety, worry, fear, sadness and even anger. And this emotional stress can have lasting ramifications on not only the parents individually, but on the family unit as a whole. According to a study in the International Journal of Women’s Health, moms of NICU babies are 70% more likely to experience PPD compared with mothers of healthy term infants outside of the NICU (1).

To better support the mental health of NICU parents everywhere, we developed a 12-day program specifically for them so that they could access clinically-validated support during—and after—their NICU stay. In the program, parents will hear candid stories from other NICU parents, learn coping techniques for getting through the hardest of days, and develop a more profound emotional resilience that will empower them as parents even beyond the NICU.   

As we launch our new program, we welcomed reproductive psychologist and Canopie advisor Marisa Perera, PhD, to share more about our approach to developing the Canopie NICU course and how we’re hoping to fill the mental health care treatment gap through our self-guided, compassion-focused program.

What research findings informed your design of the NICU course?

Reviews of the state of the science show us that parents of babies in the NICU are at greater risk of experiencing stress-related, trauma-related, and/or mood disorders compared to parents of babies not in the NICU and that parent mental health is intertwined with the baby’s or babies’ wellbeing. There is also emerging science to support the role of remote mental health support in NICU care. Research has also evidenced ethnocultural disparities with preterm birth being 50% higher among Black women compared to women of all other races and/or ethnicities, and Black and Hispanic babies being more likely to be cared for in lower-quality NICUs. It is my hope that digital mental health tech, like Canopie, can be used to provide equitable mental health support and help eliminate the mental health effects of these disparities.

Key research studies:

  1. Erdei C, Liu CH, Machie M, Church PT, Heyne R. Parent mental health and neurodevelopmental outcomes of children hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit. Early Hum Dev. 2021;154:105278. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2020.105278
  2. Geller PA, Spiecker N, Cole JCM, Zajac L, Patterson CA. The rise of tele-mental health in perinatal settings. Semin Perinatol. 2021;45(5):151431. doi:10.1016/j.semperi.2021.151431
  3. Ravi D, Iacob A, Profit J. Unequal care: Racial/ethnic disparities in neonatal intensive care delivery. Semin Perinatol. 2021;45(4):151411. doi:10.1016/j.semperi.2021.151411
  4. Roque ATF, Lasiuk GC, Radünz V, Hegadoren K. Scoping Review of the Mental Health of Parents of Infants in the NICU. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2017;46(4):576-587. doi:10.1016/j.jogn.2017.02.005

What gaps were you hoping to fill in NICU mental health support that currently exists? 

Parents with a baby or babies in the NICU have more than enough to adjust to, and I firmly believe asking for mental health support should not be another burden that falls on these parents. With regular screenings and screening-targeted content that is readily accessible, this gap can begin to be filled by Canopie. 

The other key gap I hope to fill is to prioritize supporting the mental health of parents while the baby or babies are in the NICU. NICU parents endure several barriers that can make it especially difficult to engage in mental health support during this time, including postpartum mental health stigma, difficulty identifying typical vs. atypical levels of stress, financial stress, and ethnocultural differences in pregnancy, baby, and NICU care outcomes. Canopie aims to address these barriers and strengthen parent resilience by providing readily available evidence-based, trauma-informed, compassion-based mental health content. 

What are the most important takeaways you want clinicians to know about supporting NICU parents?

  • The burden of asking for help does not and should not have to fall on parents.
  • Supporting parents with mental health interventions can and should start while baby or babies are in the NICU.
  • Canopie can help address gaps in availability of mental health support without increasing the burden of NICU providers.
  • Your self-care as a provider in a highly stressful, potentially traumatic environment also deserves attention.
  1. Tahirkheli, Noor N et al. “Postpartum depression on the neonatal intensive care unit: current perspectives.” International journal of women's health vol. 6 975-87. 24 Nov. 2014, doi:10.2147/IJWH.S54666
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