A staggering one in 10 babies in Australia are born prematurely – that is, born before 37 weeks gestation. It is a significant statistic but not one that gets much air time.
Having your baby arrive before its due date can be an emotionally fraught time and often parents of premature babies find themselves on an emotional rollercoaster. Trying to juggle the myriad of emotions, from worry to fear to hope, and trying to manage the practicalities of their baby staying in hospital while they are sent home, all makes for a particularly trying time for new parents.
If you are a parent to a premature baby, or are supporting a loved one through the early arrival of their baby, you’ll find these tips useful when navigating this particularly stressful time.
Start caring for your baby immediately
If your health is okay after you have delivered your baby, one of the best ways to mitigate that feeling of helplessness is to dive right in to looking after your baby. Hospital NICUs can be intimidating environments, and while doctors and nurses have the best care of your child at the heart of what they do, sometimes the parents can get lost in this.
But there are things you can do to help look after your baby if they are in NICU: things like expressing breast milk, changing their nappies, or even singing to them can help. Even just being present will make a difference to you and your baby. The more you are able to do, the more you’ll feel like you are not just a bystander in your child’s life.
Start a journal
The days following your baby’s birth can end up being a blur, so a journal can be a useful tool during a stressful time. Journaling is known to be a healing activity, so it can be a valuable exercise as you while away the hours at your baby’s bedside. Write things down as they happen, or when you have a spare half an hour – include anything from little observations about your baby, through to how you feel; your fears, hopes or worries. The rollercoaster of emotions can be quite isolating, so writing them out can help you accept them and move them on.
In the future, it will help you recall the experiences you had and how you felt at the time. It will be an important emotional time in your life and being able to recall the experience will help you find a place for that cluster of intense emotions.
Make bonding a priority
When a baby is born under normal circumstances, mother-baby bonding is a priority. The emotional trauma of a premature birth may disrupt the bonding process, but it can still unfold in a natural way. While health complications of your child may alter these priorities, there’s no reason why it still can’t be considered important.
A key thing to remember is that the bonding process takes time in all births, no matter what the circumstances of arrival were. You need not worry if you don’t feel emotionally connected to your baby immediately, as it’s normal for this to take time.
Other things you can do that will help you bond with your baby include skin-to-skin contact. If you can’t hold your baby, just feeling their skin by holding their hand will help. Gentle talking and singing to your baby will help grow your connection and help your baby feel secure.
Often the practicalities of having a baby in NICU can be difficult to manage, particularly if you have other children, or have had a caesarean and can’t drive. People will want to help, so accepting offers of lifts to the hospital, looking after older children or cooked meals will all make your life easier.
Keep in mind that you may need to set boundaries and that a lift to the hospital doesn’t mean they can spend the entire day at the hospital with you – you will still need alone time with your baby. If you are offered a ride to the hospital you could suggest they come up for a quick cuddle or visit with the baby before they head back home. That way you are being clear they aren’t needed beyond this (unless, of course, you want them to stay).
Invest in self-care
It is incredibly important that you and your partner look after yourselves. Eat properly, get enough sleep and rest when you feel tired. Travelling to and from the hospital each day, combined with the emotional trauma that comes with having a premature baby, can be physically exhausting, so it is even more important to nourish your body with good food and plenty of rest so you are strong enough to help look after your baby. When it all gets too much, take a break. No one will judge you for taking a morning off, away from the hospital. Book in for a massage, or get your hair done. It will energise you and perk you up.
Know that it is okay to cry
No one expects you to be a tower of strength. It’s important that you embrace how you are feeling, and let it out if you need to. Crying is okay – in fact, releasing this emotion can be extremely therapeutic. Most parents will try to be strong for their baby, but it is unrealistic to go through this process without some emotional turmoil. The hospitals will have professionals on hand to help you process what has happened and to support you through it.
Celebrate the small wins
Life in a NICU can seem like it’s all worry and anxiety, and there will definitely be setbacks and difficult times, but as your baby gets stronger there will be things to celebrate as well. If you allow yourself to celebrate these small wins, you will experience the joy of being a parent much quicker. Take lots of photos from day one so you can look back and see how much they’ve grown and how far they have come.
Going home as a family is a shared goal; it is what you and your partner, your baby and your health care providers are all working towards. The journey to this destination will be filled with ups and downs, joy, sadness, and fear, but ultimately lots of love. It is what brought you there and it is what will bring you home again.
Try to remind yourself that this is temporary – things will not be like this forever. Be kind to yourself, as you, your partner and your baby will all be better for it.