Welcoming your baby into the world is often thought of as a joyous event, but those who encounter birth complications may experience trauma, stress or other challenging emotions. A premature birth can make a parent’s experience very layered, a bit confusing and sometimes scary. It’s common for parents of premature babies to struggle mentally, but remember that support is always available.
Coping as a parent after a premature birth
Recovery will look a little bit different for each premature baby. Many premature babies have typical development but it’s important to keep in touch with your specialists and learn what to look out for as your child grows up.
Special care is crucial during the first few weeks or months of their lives, and families might struggle while the baby stays in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) or Special Care Nursery (SCN).
It can be confronting seeing your baby in a place like the NICU. You can try to reduce a bit of the anxiety you may feel around the NICU or SCN by:
- Asking your hospital team any questions you may have – don’t be afraid; they’re there to help.
- Asking for a tour of the unit to help you better understand the environment and equipment.
- Visiting as much as works for you. Some units offer 24-hour visitation for parents.
Remember, there is no “right” amount of time to spend with your baby in a care unit. If you want to visit five times a day and that’s allowed, go for it. But if you only have the time or mental energy to visit once a day, that’s okay too. It’s important not to burn yourself out during this time – keep looking after yourself too!
Being the parent of a premature baby can be a whirlwind of emotion. You’re happy your baby is here but sad they’re struggling. You’re grateful the NICU can take care of your baby, but you may feel guilty that you can’t bring them home.
The following are all common feelings amongst premature parents. If you recognise something on this list, know you are not alone, your feelings are valid and help is available:
- Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
- Unmet expectations
- Disruption to routine
- Regret that you didn’t carry your baby for nine months
- Guilt that your baby is not totally healthy
- Loss and regret about not having a birth as you planned (i.e. unexpected need for c-section, birthing instruments or medication)
- Trauma and distress at what you went through during labour and delivery
- Loss of the chance to celebrate immediately after birth
How do I manage these feelings?
Try to remind yourself these feelings are all normal, although you may not feel like your normal self. You are not weak or wrong to feel these feelings but try to prioritise working through them and seeking professional help if you need it.
A creative outlet may help you process some challenging emotions. You could try journaling your feelings or speaking with loved ones. If you have a partner, focus on maintaining communication while you both deal with this challenging experience.
Try to focus on each little win as it happens. Celebrate the firsts, such as the first time you hold your baby, the first time you change their nappy or the first time you feed them.
Feelings of helplessness can be quite common while your baby is in the NICU or SCN. You may find it a bit easier to cope during this time if you:
- Maintain a routine or develop a new one
- Rest as much as you can
- Eat a balanced diet
- Drink plenty of water
- Avoid alcohol, medications and other drugs in excess
- Speak with people who understand what you’re going through, such as your nurses or members of support groups for parents of premature babies
- Ask for and accept help, be it emotional (a long chat with a friend) or practical (help cooking dinner and cleaning up)
If you’re struggling mentally or emotionally, reach out to a healthcare professional and Life’s Little Treasures for support. Postnatal anxiety and depression can affect mothers and fathers of any child, and the added stress of premature birth can put anyone under extra strain.
If your baby is coming home, it means the hospital team is confident that you and your baby are ready. Your team can make sure you’re prepared and provide extra resources and support as needed.
Take it slow when you get home. It’s an adjustment! Give yourself some space to get used to caring for your baby at home and continue to ask for support where you need it.