Coping with Having a Premature Baby

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Emotions Felt by Parents of Premature Babies

Coping with having a premature baby can be difficult. Having a premature baby is different from what parents-to-be dream about when they make plans for their little ones. The birth experience, first days, homecoming, and newborn parenting all become experiences overshadowed by worry and grief. Joy and excitement are there as well, but might be hidden under other concerns.

When your baby is premature, it is natural to feel a huge number of complex emotions. The experience is different for each family, but many premature baby parents feel some or all of the following:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Traumatized
  • Shock
  • Filled with grief
  • Angry
  • Guilty
  • Powerless
  • Worried
  • Hopeful
  • Intense love for your baby
  • Longing to be with your baby
  • A sense of loss

As you can see, the mixture of emotions that preemie parents may face is extensive and wide ranging. Some of the feelings are negative, while others are extremely positive. You may even feel them all at once!

Coping With Your Feelings

Acknowledging and accepting your feelings is the first step toward coping with having a premature baby. First, identify all that you are feeling by making a list, spending some time in quiet reflection, or talking with your partner or a friend or counselor. Let yourself fully face each of the emotions you're feeling. Cry, yell, pray, or laugh if your feelings demand it.

Consider writing down your emotions and experiences. Parents of a premature baby often have a hard time remembering all that's happened to them, as things happen quickly and are often traumatic. Writing your experiences down can help you to make sense of events and your emotions.

Find support from others. In the Internet age, it's easier than ever to connect with other parents who have survived the preemie period or who are going through it.

Look for discussion boards and support groups with other parents who have a premature baby, and join as many as you feel able. Also, consider visiting with a counselor or psychologist. If your hospital offers counseling services for parents of premature babies, sign up! These programs help preemie parents cope and to have more positive feelings in the long run.

Be a parent to your baby. Spend time with your baby as often as you can. Ask all of the questions you can think of about your baby's care and condition, and get to know the doctors and nurses caring for your baby. If it's not offered, ask if you can try kangaroo care. Spending time skin-to-skin with a premature baby not only helps him or her to get well faster, but can help you to feel closer to your baby and like a more confident parent. Many parents of a premature baby work with their employers to spread out their leave time to save some family leave for baby's homecoming. Doing so may make it harder to spend time with your baby in the NICU, but allows you uninterrupted time for bonding at home.

A Note to Fathers of a Premature Baby

Although having a premature baby is hard for both parents, the experience is often especially difficult for fathers. Neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are a difficult place to feel like a parent, and fathers may feel very out of place in the NICU environment. The coping tips listed above will help dads to feel more at peace with having a preemie, as will the following tips especially for dads:

Focus on the baby, not the machines. In the NICU, fathers have a tendency to dwell on equipment, monitors, respiratory support settings, and medical tests. Asking questions about your baby's medical care is important, and can help you to feel a sense of control. But when your questions have been answered, turn to your baby. You can develop a fathering relationship with a premature baby by taking temperatures, changing diapers, practicing kangaroo care, or holding your baby during feedings, even if those feedings go in through a feeding tube.

Support your partner. You and your baby's mother may have different feelings and handle those feelings different ways. Understand that, although you are going through this together, you may both feel very alone. Try to support her by allowing her to spend as much time as she needs to with the baby, by encouraging her in her parenting efforts, and supporting her as she pumps milk to feed to your baby.

Accept help from others. If you have a stressful work life and a number of responsibilities, then having a premature baby can seem like one thing too many to handle. Delegate as many responsibilities as you can, both at work and at home.

Sources:

Davis, Ph.D, Deborah L. and Tesler Stein, Psy. D., Mara. "Grief and Coping." Adapted from the book Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey Fulcrum, 2004.

Nagorski Johnson, PhD, RNC, Amy. "Engaging Fathers in the NICU: Taking Down Barriers to the Baby." Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing. May 12, 2008 22:302-305.

Jotzo, PhD, Martina and Poets, MD, Christian F. "Helping Parents Cope With the Trauma of Premature Birth: An Evaluation of Trauma-Preventive Psychological Intervention." Pediatrics April 2005 115:915-919.

March of Dimes. "Coping With the NICU Experience: A Father's Role." Accessed: November 22, 2008. http://www.marchofdimes.com/prematurity/21292_11225.asp

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