Your emotions after premature birth: what to expect
It’s natural to have many mixed, powerful and conflicting emotions about premature birth.
There are positive emotions, of course, like joy and love for your newborn.
But it’s common to wonder about what happened and what caused the premature birth. You might feel helpless, sad, guilty, anxious or traumatised by the birth experience. There might also be concern, fear and confusion about seeing your premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or special care nursery (SCN).
Some parents might feel angry at themselves or their doctors. Or they might feel angry at their premature baby for making them feel this bad or for being born early. This might mean they feel reluctant to hold their baby or visit the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This is OK too.
Many people feel like things aren’t quite real. And it’s easy to feel powerless or as if you have no control over the future. It’s common to feel lonely. Some people find it hard to see themselves as parents while their premature baby is in the NICU.
Many parents find it very hard to leave their premature baby at the hospital while they go home.
Over time, there are generally fewer challenges, and they get easier to cope with. And as your premature baby gets bigger and more medically stable, you’ll be able to hold and care for them more often. As you get to know the NICU, it will feel more comfortable too. The nursing staff and other members of your baby’s care team will help you as well as care for your baby.
All of this can help you to feel more confident, less anxious and better able to connect and bond with your premature baby.
Tips for managing emotions about premature birth
Here are some ideas that might help you manage your emotions.
- Accept your feelings, whatever they are – don’t push them away. Acknowledging and naming your emotions is a healthy thing to do.
- Be kind to yourself, and remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can.
- If you can, get to know other parents who are in a similar situation. It helps to hear how other parents are coping, but remember that there’s no one right way to feel or respond.
- Accept your partner’s way of coping if it’s different from yours. Try to let your partner do things their own way, and find out how your partner is feeling by talking to each other and listening to each other.
Looking after yourself
- Eat healthy food, do physical activity, and get as much rest as you can. It’s also a good idea to limit caffeine and alcohol and other drugs.
- Surround yourself with people who help you to feel supported.
- Avoid unnecessary stress, if you can. It’s OK to let some things go or not do things the way you usually do while you focus on your premature baby and your family for a while.
- Take a day off from the NICU every now and then so you can do things for yourself as well.
- Take time to relax and do things you enjoy each day, even for just a few minutes. For example, do breathing exercises, listen to your favourite music, or go for a walk around the block. You can also do breathing exercises or listen to music while sitting next to your baby in the hospital.
Being with your baby
- Celebrate successes, positives and progress – yours and your premature baby’s. Your baby might be in the NICU, but they’ll be reaching their own goals and milestones.
- Get involved in your premature baby’s day-to-day care. This can help you bond with your baby, which is good for your baby and good for you.
- Find out how you can help your premature baby. For example, you might learn about one piece of technology or your baby’s stress signs, or about how to change a nappy gently. Just focus on one thing at a time.
- Remember that there are things only you as a parent can do. Your touch, smell and voice are all very important for your premature baby. You’re also your baby’s most important advocate.
- Talk with trusted family members or friends about your emotions. It’s OK to share negative feelings and to say what you need. This might be someone just to listen or someone who doesn’t mind if you cry.
- Seek support only from people you feel comfortable with. It’s OK to not to seek support from people who cause you tension and stress.
- Ask your nurse if you can speak with someone at the hospital who can help you manage your emotions.
- Speak with your GP, who can guide you to an appropriate mental health professional.
- Contact Lifeline, Beyond Blue or your state or territory parent helpline.
It’s important to look after yourself in these early days and weeks of your premature baby’s life. When you look after yourself, you’ll be in better shape to care for your baby.
More than baby blues: postnatal depression after premature birth
Mood changes are common after you’ve had a baby. They can vary from mild to severe.
Many birthing mothers experience the ‘baby blues’ – a mild depression in the days after childbirth. If it continues and becomes more severe, it could become postnatal depression (PND). Non-birthing parents can suffer from PND too.
Signs of PND include a persistent feeling of sadness, low mood, feelings of hopelessness, lack of energy, low self-esteem and sleep problems.
If you think you’re experiencing the signs of postnatal depression in birthing mothers or postnatal depression in non-birthing parents, it’s important to get professional help as soon as you can. Your GP is a good place to start. With proper diagnosis, treatment and support, you can make a full recovery.