The impact on parents

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You and your baby may not have gotten your full 9 months, the birth plan went out the window, the celebrations of birth are missing and you must now experience the rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, setbacks and triumphs, which very well could be one of the greatest life challenges you ever face.

Parents of NICU/SCN babies often feel a sense of loss, guilt, regret and distress about how their baby came into the world. Many deliveries resulting in NICU/SCN admission are traumatic ones, and not how you planned or imagined on having your baby. 

Some common feelings:

  • Not being ready to not be pregnant any more
  • Loss and regret that you and your baby didn’t get your full 9 months
  • Guilt that you didn’t carry your baby to term
  • Guilt that your baby has a congenital abnormality or problems resulting from labour and delivery
  • Loss and regret at not having the birth you had planned or wanted
  • Trauma and distress at what you went through during labour and delivery
  • Loss of the birth celebrations
  • The loss associated with not having photos or footage of your baby’s birth or straight after birth
  • The loss of not getting to hold your baby first, straight after birth 

These are all normal feelings. It can help to talk or write about your experience, talk to parents who have been through similar experiences, talk to a qualified counsellor/social worker or psychologist, bond with your baby, celebrate milestones in the NICU/SCN, take lots of photos, and focus on the positives. 

Having your baby stay in the NICU or SCN can be a very stressful, emotional and traumatic time for baby and parents. You are meant to be celebrating the birth of your baby, but must experience a rollercoaster ride of emotions and the new experiences of having a premature or sick newborn. You are probably experiencing a range of emotions and feelings like:

  • sadness
  • disappointment
  • numbness
  • anger
  • powerlessness
  • grief
  • loss
  • anxiety
  • being overwhelmed
  • blame
  • fear
  • guilt
  • isolation
  • loneliness 

Understand that these feelings are normal. Hopefully the knowledge that what you are feeling is common to most NICU/SCN parents gives you some comfort or relief and helps you to know that you are not alone. 

One of the most difficult things about these emotions is that you may also be experiencing feelings of happiness, love and joy. These contradicting feelings and emotions can be very confusing and exhausting. You are happy to see your baby, but not happy that they are here like this. You feel joy when they make progress but are still saddened by what they are going through and the struggles they still face. 

Take and experience each emotion as it comes. Don’t feel guilty or silly about how you are feeling. Your feelings are valid and you do not have to explain or justify them to anyone.

If you feel that your emotions are overwhelming you, seek professional help. 

Parent Participation

Having a premature or sick newborn in hospital is a very emotional and stressful time. Parents often feel powerless, intimidated and controlled. They find themselves in a new environment where others have the primary role of caring for their baby. 

The NICU and SCN are foreign places to most, with new people, machines, wires, terminology to learn, and rules and regulations. Some parents find it hard to bond with their baby in such restrictive and difficult circumstances. 

Here are some ways that parents can take on a more active role with their baby, hopefully helping with the bonding process and making them feel more like parents than observers: 

Voice – Talk to and/or sing to your baby. Your baby will know your voice and be comforted by it.

Touch – If it is appropriate to do so, stroke and touch your baby. Hold your baby whenever the opportunity arises. This can be very comforting and reassuring to both you and baby. 

Skin-to-skin Care – This is where baby and their mother or father share skin-to-skin contact. Baby is placed on mom or dad’s bare chest for cuddles. This is a wonderful way to promote bonding. Some studies suggest that skin-to-skin care results in physical benefits such as fewer breathing problems, faster weight gain and more stable body temperature. 

Caring – Doing your baby’s “caring” can make you feel more connected, more like their parent and more involved. e.g. change their diaper when it is time, clean their eyes, take their temperature, change their clothes and bedding, bath them when they are allowed to have baths. 

Feeding – Expressing milk is one way mother can help with the treatment of her baby. Your milk is the perfect food for baby and contains many antibodies that can help baby stay healthy. It will be fed to your baby through a nasogastric tube (NG tube) until they can coordinate their sucking, swallowing and breathing. When baby begins suck feeds, your expressed breast milk can be fed to them in a bottle or you can begin breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a great way to bond with your baby. 

Personalise you baby’s space – Some hospitals will allow you to bring items from home like clothes for baby to wear, stuffed toys, photos of family etc. to decorate your baby’s incubator. 

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If there is something you don’t understand or want to know about, ask. Ask about what you can and can’t do for your baby and what you can and can’t bring in to personalise your baby’s space. The NICU and SCN staff will be happy to give you the information you need and tips on how to be involved with your baby’s care.

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