Being a NICU Dad is no easy thing, and in some ways it may be even more challenging than it is to be a NICU Mom.
If you are like most dads, having your baby in the NICU will immediately lead you to feel that things are out of control. Suddenly, you have multiple roles thrust upon you, some of which may be new. Not only are you a dad, but you are also overseer and protector of the entire family. With that comes concern first for your partner’s health and well-being, and then concern about the new baby and other children who might already be in the family. How will you keep it all together, go to work, get enough updates on your baby’s condition from the healthcare team, and share information with your extended family members and friends without becoming completely stressed out?
You may also feel like your baby’s care is out of your control. Some dads choose to see this as a positive, in that they “don’t have to worry” because the doctors and nurses know what they are doing and will take care of things. But other dads may feel the opposite, worrying even more about their baby, particularly if they feel they don’t have access to enough information about their baby.
Dads differ, too, in how much information they want. You may desire a full report of all the numbers and stats as soon as you arrive in the NICU each day, or you may prefer to just hear an overview so as to not become more overwhelmed than you may already be. Either way is fine. Feel free to ask for reading material or directions to websites which explain the challenges your baby is facing, and to let the medical team know how much information is enough.
Dads are in the often unique position of being the first one to see their baby in the NICU; mom may be too sick to come into the NICU and may even be in another hospital for several days. It therefore becomes your job to talk with the healthcare team and relay news to your partner, and support her emotionally until she finally gets to see the baby. As baby’s NICU stay becomes longer, you may come to feel like you are supporting your partner, but no one is supporting you. You may adhere to that time-honored tradition of “staying strong” for your wife, but in reality you still have to process the same kinds of feelings your wife does. Research has shown that dads tend to have more delayed reactions to the stress of their baby’s NICU course than moms do. Dr. Richard Shaw’s studies showed that by four months after baby’s birth, mother’s symptoms of trauma related to their baby’s NICU stay had lessened, but fathers’ symptoms had increased and even surpassed moms’ symptoms. Be on the lookout for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after your baby comes home (feeling irritable, panicky, disconnected, or having nightmares); be honest with yourself and seek help if you need it.
Probably the best way to deal with stressful feelings during your baby’s NICU stay is to schedule time to talk with your baby’s doctor. Getting concrete information will enable you to feel like you can do more effective planning for your family. However, be prepared for that inevitable sense of frustration if and when your baby’s doctor doesn’t have answers to all of your questions. There can be a lot of uncertainty concerning babies’ futures, and unfortunately doctors do not have crystal balls. You may have to learn to “go with the flow” a bit, like it or not.
Many dads feel that their best way to cope is to continue to go to work to provide for their family. This is perfectly acceptable; you won’t be judged if you spend your time at work instead of in the NICU. For some fathers, though, work presents a stress, because they feel the tug of wanting to be with their baby, especially if he is critically ill. Also, spending more time at work may limit your access to your baby’s doctor. If you do return to work full-time before your baby is discharged, a good suggestion would be for you and your partner to schedule regular conferences with the baby’s healthcare team. This may require you to leave work early one day every several weeks, but it should be worth it in terms of the peace of mind you gain.
Another critically important NICU experience is holding your baby—and even kangarooing!—to help you bond. It’s natural to feel afraid to handle a small, fragile, perhaps sick baby, but your baby needs this physical and emotional time together and you do, too. This will help you establish a personal relationship with your baby and get you started on your new life together. The NICU staff will be right at your side to ensure your success with holding your little one.
Other ways to cope with your stress are to take time to leave the NICU, to get some exercise, to be involved in activities with any religious community you may be a part of; and don’t forget “date night” once in a while with your wife. Being a NICU Dad is every bit as important as being a NICU Mom. Together, you can get through your baby’s NICU stay and work as a team to support your baby’s homecoming.
By Sue Hall, M.D.
Author, For the Love of Babies
On facebook at For the Love of Babies