Your feelings after premature birth: what to expect

A premature birth can shake your confidence in the world. It’s normal to feel many mixed and sometimes conflicting emotions.

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 early 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 baby in the NICU or special care nursery (SCN).

Some parents might feel angry at themselves or their doctors. Or they might feel angry at their 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 normal too.

Many people feel like things aren’t quite real. And it’s easy to feel powerless or that you have no control over the future. Some parents find it hard to feel they really ‘own’ their baby while he’s in the NICU.

Many mums find the day they leave hospital very difficult. The separation from your baby might feel worse on the day you go home.

Over time, there are generally fewer challenges, and they get easier to cope with. And as your baby gets bigger and more medically stable, you’ll be able to hold and care for her 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 baby.

No control over what was happening … completely helpless … nothing I knew about … nothing I could do to make a difference. I can’t control destiny. To feel helpless is so painful … suspended in time and space.
– Parent of a premature baby

Tips for coping with your feelings about premature birth

Here are some ideas that might help you cope with negative feelings and start to feel more positive.

Dealing with feelings

  • Accept your feelings, whatever they are – don’t push them away. Acknowledging your emotions is a healthy thing to do.
  • Talk to someone about how you’re feeling. This could be your partner, a trusted family member or friend, or a professional like a counsellor.
  • Accept your partner’s way of coping if it’s different from yours. Try to let your partner do things his or her 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, get as much rest as you can, and take time for things you enjoy. It’s also a good idea to limit caffeine and alcohol and other drugs.
  • Surround yourself with people who help you to feel positive.
  • Avoid unnecessary stress, if you can. It’s good to take a day off from the NICU every now and then so you can do things for yourself as well.
  • Take time to relax each day, even for just a few minutes. For example, do deep, controlled breathing, listen to your favourite music, or go for a walk around the block. You can also do breathing, music and relaxing while sitting next to your baby in the hospital.

Being with your baby

  • Celebrate successes, positives and progress – yours and your baby’s. Your baby might be in the NICU, but he’ll be reaching his own goals and milestones. There’ll be lots of reasons to feel positive.
  • Getting close to your baby helps boost your own feelings of wellbeing. You can do this by getting involved in your baby’s day-to-day care.
  • 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 baby. You’re also your baby’s most important advocate.

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.

Ideas from other parents of premmies: an ‘emotional wish list’

Some parents of premature babies have found it helpful to write an emotional wish list to share with friends and family. Here are some thoughts from one parent’s wish list:

  • My baby lives and is important to me. I need to celebrate her birth with you, no matter how sick she is.
  • If you allow me to cry, I thank you because it allows my emotions to flow and not be bottled up in anxiety.
  • The birth of a premmie is not like any other pregnancy or birth, and it would be helpful if you didn’t compare mine to yours or to others’.
  • Prematurity isn’t contagious, and I would love you not to shy away from me.
  • Please don’t expect my struggle to be over in six weeks, six months or even six years. I am coming to terms with many conflicting emotions and the future will emerge in its own time.
  • Please don’t reassure me with empty words such as, ‘The worst is over now’. Our baby might have problems in the future, and it’s our job to help our baby develop while at the same time watching out for problems.
  • I hope you understand that having a premature baby has changed me, and I don’t know if or when I’ll get back to being my old self.

This list is adapted from Bone, K. (1998). A preemie primer: A parents wish. The Early Edition, 2(3), 13-14.

Families experience premature birth in different and unique ways. It helps to hear how other families cope but remember that there’s no one right way to feel or respond.

More than baby blues: postnatal depression after premature birth

Mood changes are common after you’ve had a baby and vary from mild to severe.

Many women experience the ‘baby blues’ – a mild type of depression in the days after childbirth. If it continues and becomes more severe, it could become postnatal depression (PND). Men 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 suffering from PND, you need emotional support from family and friends. Many parents find psychological treatments helpful, and antidepressant medication can also help. It’s a good idea to visit your GP, who can recommend the best treatment for you. Read more about PND in women and PND in men.