The Benefits of Keeping a NICU Journal

How Writing Can Help You Heal

woman writing in journal
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The day I was discharged from the hospital after my daughter Stella was born, I cried as I stood over the warming table where she lay baking under phototherapy lights. Goggles were velcroed to her temples and a ventilator tube stretched from her tiny mouth.

As tears streamed down my cheeks, a nurse patted me on the shoulder. “It’s okay,” she said. “Your daughter is having a good day.”

“But it’s not fair,” I sobbed.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”

“I know,” she said gently. “But this is your birth story.” She nodded to Stella. “This is your daughter’s birth story, and you need to accept it.”

Coping With Your Emotions

It seemed impossible to do what this nurse asked of me. You may feel the same way. How can you accept the fact that your baby remain in the NICU while you go home to an empty house? How can you accept all those tubes and wires and flashing alarms? How can you accept that you can't normally hold your baby? Even after your baby is home and begins growing, acceptance may not come easily.

The thing that finally helped was writing.

How to Start Writing Your Preemie Story

Writing about the NICU and the birth and hospitalization of your preemie can be overwhelming, and I know people who have been too scared to revisit those traumatic events. If you feel that way, it helps to begin with just the facts.

For me, one day when Stella was five months old, I went to the coffee shop near our house and pulled out paper and a pen. I began with an image: my daughter, writhing on white blankets, beamed from the NICU into the television set in my hospital room. As soon as that image was down on paper, other images and emotions came flooding back.

After an hour, words covered the page, and for the first time since my daughter was born, the world felt a little bigger and I somehow felt less alone.

Over the following months, I continued to write about Stella’s birth and with each passing month, I felt healthier and more grounded.

Here is an exercise from my writing guide, ​Use Your Words, to get you started:

Think of a scene or situation from your child’s birth or time in the NICU. Once you have the scene or situation in mind, list only the facts. For instance, if I were going to do this with the first time I saw Stella after her birth, I would begin like this: 

  • I wore two hospital gowns, one opening at my back and one opening at my front.
  • My husband pushed the wheelchair.
  • The tunnel to Children’s Hospital was hot and bright.
  • I clutched the arms of the wheelchair, dizzy. I thought I might fall out, spill onto the floor.
  • The NICU smelled sweet.
  • Stella was 42 hours old.
  • She lay on an open warming table at Station 5.

Once you have a long list of facts—no emotions—write the scene. Begin with “I remember…”

Repeat this whenever you get stuck. Try not to incorporate any emotional words (upset, angry, love, devastated). Try to convey feeling through the way you write the facts.

Next, go back to that same moment and record how you felt. A good way to get yourself going is to write on the top of your page: “When I saw my child beamed through the television (or whatever your situation/memory was) I felt…” Really try to be true to how you were feeling in that moment.

No one needs to see this writing, so be honest and let all your emotions out. It can be intense to revisit these memories, so remember to be patient with yourself and take breaks from writing when needed. But I think you’ll find that the more your write about your NICU experience, the less power it will have over you.

Benefits of Writing to Heal

This is a common reaction to journaling. In his research, Dr. James Pennebaker, psychologist and author of Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, found that writing about traumatic events had many physical and emotional benefits; it can lower your blood pressure, strengthen your immune system, reduce stress, and help you gain perspective and improve your outlook on life.

In his research, Pennebaker found that those who showed the most improvement in physical health mood and emotional outlook through writing were those who wrote the details/facts about the events and their emotional responses to those events. It is the combination, his research shows, of recording the events and one’s reaction to them that yields the best health results.