After a premature birth: how non-birthing parents including fathers might feel
It’s natural for non-birthing parents including fathers to feel many and mixed emotions after a premature birth. For example, you might be excited about becoming a parent but also worried about your baby (or babies) and their mother.
There’s a lot going on practically too. Straight after a premature birth you might be talking to doctors, learning about your premature baby’s condition, and telling your family and friends what’s going on. You might also be looking after other children or managing work or other responsibilities. It’s understandable if you feel overwhelmed sometimes too.
It’s healthy to take time to think about your emotions and needs, whatever they are. And it’s important to take time for yourself too – even if it’s just a quick nap or a hot shower.
It can also help to talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, particularly if you’re struggling to cope with difficult or negative feelings. You could talk with a friend, family member, social worker or other health professional at the hospital. You could also call Lifeline on 131 114, a parent helpline or MensLine on 1300 789 978.
When you acknowledge your feelings and look after yourself, you’re more likely to have mental and emotional energy to care for your baby and your baby’s birthing mother.
Getting involved while your premature baby is in hospital
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.
Getting involved is great for bonding with your premature baby. It helps you get to know your baby’s needs and respond to them with love, warmth and care. When you do this, you build your relationship with your baby. Your baby also feels safe and secure, which lays the foundation for all areas of your baby’s development.
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 baby’s birthing mother feel more confident. Your support can boost her wellbeing and mental health, and it’s also good for her relationships with the baby and 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, the birthing mother 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.
You and your partner: caring for each other
If you’re in a relationship with your baby’s birthing mother, your relationship can play a big part in helping you both cope with the experience of having a premature baby. It might even bring you closer as you go through the experience together.
If your partner can’t get to the NICU or special care nursery in the first few days after the birth, you might like to take a photo or video of your baby. Hearing and seeing your baby can help your partner feel better and more connected. It can also prepare your partner for what to expect in the NICU.
Keeping notes and taking photos or videos can help you and your partner feel more connected to your baby. You might think you’ll never forget this time in your family’s life, but even the strongest memories fade over time.
Managing extra responsibilities while your premature baby is in hospital
Whether you’re in a relationship together or you co-parent with your baby’s birthing mother, you could be busy managing extra responsibilities for quite a while.
As well as making trips into the hospital, you might be doing the shopping, going to work, organising visitors, and dropping off and picking up your other children if you have any.
And even if your baby’s mother is sent home while your baby is still in hospital, she’s likely to be busy expressing breastmilk for the baby or spending a lot of time at the hospital.
Here are a few ideas to help you with managing all this:
- Talk openly and honestly with your baby’s birthing mother about what’s happening for both of you. Good communication will help things run smoothly.
- Agree together on who does what – and what doesn’t have to be done. For example, if you live together, 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.
Fathers and all non-birthing parents can get postnatal depression. Signs include low moods, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, and withdrawal from friends and family. If you think you might have antenatal depression, it’s important to see your GP or a mental health professional as soon as possible.