After a premature birth, dads can feel torn between their baby, partner, other children and broader responsibilities. It can be hard for dads to build a relationship with their premature baby, but getting ‘hands on’ is a great start.
After a premature birth: what dads might go through
Straight after a premature birth, you might be the one who has to talk to doctors, learn about your premature baby’s condition and tell your partner, family and friends what’s going on.
You might feel you have to be strong and supportive and hold yourself and everyone else together. You might be excited about becoming a father, but also torn between your concerns for your baby (or babies) and your partner’s health. You might feel like you’ve ‘lost control’, can’t protect your loved ones, or can’t cope. In some cultures fathers can feel some stigma about a premature birth, or a sense of shame.
It’s also normal and understandable to feel lost or stretched between responsibilities at home – including looking after other children – hospital and work.
You might want to start caring for your baby straight away, and feel frustrated because you can’t. For some dads, it takes longer to feel like a father. Over time, though, they bond and feel more confident.
Whatever the situation and your feelings about it, your needs can sometimes get forgotten, with family and hospital staff focusing on your premature baby and your partner.
Some dads feel a lot of stress after a premature birth. Some push these feelings away, or go back to work as a way to cope.
You don’t have to bounce back emotionally straight after the birth. It’s a good idea to take time to think about your feelings and needs, and take time for yourself – even if it’s a 30-minute nap or a hot shower.
Talk to someone you can trust, like your partner, a friend or family member. You could also talk with the social worker or other health professional at the hospital or ring MensLine on 1300 789 978.
Someone asked me how I was coping with having a premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). My eyes filled with tears, because no-one had asked me about my feelings before. The hospital staff tended to make eye contact with my wife when they talked to us. I’d taken three months off work to be with my wife and baby, but I’d started to feel superfluous and invisible.
– Rex, dad of a premature baby
Extra responsibilities beyond the baby
When your baby is in the NICU or special care nursery (SCN), you might feel like you have more responsibility than you’re ready for.
If you have other children, you’ll be juggling their needs and care, as well as bringing them into the NICU or SCN so they can see their new brother or sister and spend time with their mum.
As well as making trips into the hospital, you’ll probably be doing the shopping, keeping the house clean, going to work, organising (or trying to limit) visitors, and doing drop-offs and pick-ups of other children to grandparents, child care, kinder, school and other activities.
If your partner is sent home while your baby is still in hospital, your partner is likely to be busy expressing breastmilk for the baby or spending a lot of time at the hospital. This means you could be busy managing home and family for quite a while.
Working with your partner, agreeing on who does what and talking openly and honestly about what’s happening for both of you can help things run smoothly. It’s also a good idea to ask family members and friends for help with looking after other children. And if someone offers to cook you a meal, or do your shopping – say, ‘Yes, please!’
Dads: bonding with your premature baby
As a dad, you have a big impact on your child’s development from birth. Newborn babies are born ready to connect with both their parents.
The earlier you hold your premature baby and get involved in his care, the sooner you’re likely to feel affection and love for your baby. And a close relationship between you and your baby can help you feel better about yourself and better able to cope.
Skin-to-skin contact, also known as kangaroo care, between you and your baby is a great way to bond with your premature baby and start feeling connected. In fact, skin-to-skin contact can make you feel more like the baby belongs to you. You might also start feeling like you want to protect and care for your baby, if you haven’t felt this before. NICU staff can tell you how to touch and hold your baby.
Even if you can’t hold your baby, you might still be able to touch her through the incubator. As your baby gets older, you might want to talk to your baby, read a book or sing to her. This can all help with bonding.
Keeping notes and taking photos or videos can help you feel more connected to your baby. You might think you’ll never forget this time in your life, but even the strongest memories fade over time.
Getting involved while your premature baby is in hospital
Sometimes dads think that there’s no role for them with little babies. You might even feel like you’re ‘the husband’ but not ‘the father’.
Being hands on with the daily care of your premature baby, where possible, is the best way to build your skills and confidence. For example, you might want to have skin-to-skin contact with your baby, be involved in feeding, changing nappies or settling your baby, or learn how to give your baby a bath.
These activities also create one-on-one time with your baby, which is the building block of a positive relationship.
Premature babies can get overstimulated and stressed easily. You can see signs of tiredness in their body language and in their vital signs, like heart rate and oxygen levels. It’s a good idea to check with your baby’s nurse about what you can do and how much your baby can handle – especially in the early days.
And if you ever feel left out of your baby’s care, just let hospital staff know. You can talk to the nurse, social worker, doctor or NICU coordinator.
The special care staff really encouraged my partner and me to be hands on. They were supportive and helpful, but I was the one doing nasogastric feeds, collecting breastmilk from the fridge, cleaning breast pump equipment, helping with bath time, and doing nappy changes. These roles were incredibly helpful in a few ways – helping my baby, helping my partner and keeping my own stress levels down.
– Pat, dad of a two-year-old and 35-week premature baby
Spending time in NICU
The more time you spend in the NICU, the better it is for your child’s development. That’s because you’re getting your relationship with your child off to a great start.
If you’re in the NICU as much as possible, it can also help your partner feel more confident about the situation. Your support can boost her wellbeing and mental health, and support her relationship with the baby and with you.
If you have to go back to work, any amount of time you can spend in the NICU is still good for your baby, your partner and you.
Most NICUs aim for family-centred care, and good communication with you is a big part of this. Although they’re busy looking after your baby, NICU staff will usually be happy to talk with you about any questions or concerns. Just try to aim for a balance between letting staff focus on your baby and asking questions.
Your relationship with your partner
Having a premature baby can put strain on your relationship with your partner.
But it can also bring you closer to your partner as you go through the experience together. Many dads find that their relationship plays a big part in helping them cope with the experience of having a premature baby.
If your partner can’t get to the NICU or SCN in the first few days, you might like to take a photo or video of your baby to give to your partner after the birth. Hearing and seeing your baby can help your partner feel a bit better and more connected.
You can also help prepare your partner for the first visit by letting her know what to expect in the NICU.