After a premature birth: dads’ feelings

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.

With so much going on practically and emotionally, it’s also normal to feel a lot of stress after a premature birth.

Whatever the situation and your feelings about it, your feelings and needs can get forgotten, with family and hospital staff focusing on your premature baby and your partner.

Dads: coping with feelings after a premature birth

Many dads push their feelings away, or go back to work straight away as a way to cope.

But acknowledging your emotions and needs is a healthy thing to do. It’s good to take time to think about your feelings and needs. Take time for yourself too – even if it’s just a 30-minute nap or a hot shower.

It also helps to talk to someone you can trust about how you’re feeling, like your partner, a friend or family member. You could also talk with the social worker or another 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

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. Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) staff can show 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 or partner’ 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 be involved in feeding, changing nappies or settling your baby. Or you could 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 the NICU with your premature baby

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. 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 when you have a premature baby

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 special care nursery 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.

Dads can get postnatal depression too. Read more in our article on depression in men during pregnancy and after birth.

Managing extra responsibilities when you have a premature baby in hospital

When your baby is in the NICU or special care nursery, 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 special care nursery so they can see their mum and their new brother or sister.

As well as making trips into the hospital, you’ll probably be doing the shopping, keeping the house clean, going to work, organising visitors, and dropping off and picking up your other children.

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.

Here are a few ideas to help you with managing all this:

  • Talk openly and honestly with your partner about what’s happening for both of you. Good communication will help things run smoothly.
  • Agree with your partner on who does what – and what doesn’t have to be done. For example, it might not matter if the house doesn’t get cleaned as often.
  • Ask family members and friends for help with looking after other children.
  • Look into ways to save time on household tasks. For example, it’s often quicker to shop online for groceries and have them delivered.
  • Look into whether your workplace has any leave arrangements that might let you take some extra time off.
  • Say ‘Yes, please!’ if someone offers to cook you a meal, do your shopping, pick up your children and so on.