The day your baby is born is supposed to be one of the happiest and greatest days of your life.
If your baby is born prematurely then it can be one of the most frightening and traumatic days instead.
Because tiny babies are so vulnerable and need immediate specialist care, things happen with speed in the delivery room. You may barely get a glance of your baby before he is whisked away to the neonatal intensive care baby unit (NICU).
Mothers may be unconscious or in shock in which case it may be fathers who find themselves thrust into an emergency situation that nothing can prepare them for.
In a study parents referred to the experience of giving birth to a premature baby as “being a sudden or surreal experience which they did not feel part of.”
Both mums and dads reported feeling like time was distorted.
They later admitted they had very little recollection of the events that occurred immediately after birth as they were in shock.
Like little baby sparrows
Parents who have had a premature baby talk about the shock of their baby’s appearance at birth. Many compare their tiny babies to newborn animals or birds, such as saying they look like “a little baby sparrow“.
Some parents focus on the translucency of their baby’s skin. All speak about seeing their tiny baby for the first time as being “shocking” and “overwhelming“.
Writing for NBC news one dad, Jaime Aron , recalls seeing his premature baby twins for the first time, an experience he faced alone as his wife was unconscious and recovering from labour. He says:
I couldn’t stop staring.
The boys were so tiny, like newly hatched birds, with their eyes fused shut and their skin a creepy, shiny, almost translucent color.
Aron speaks of the whirlwind of events that led to this moment and how he felt desperately scared and alone.
He was swept along with each stage, as his babies were whisked away and as his wife was being cared for by doctors . He writes:
On another floor, our family was waiting.
My dad, Lori’s parents and her siblings already knew a little. They’d been in the hall outside the operating room and caught a glimpse of the babies. “Like minnows,” my father muttered.
I told them everything I knew. Their questions made me realize how much I didn’t: What are their chances of living? What’s being done to them now? And just how small are they?
Then there was another question.
“How are you doing?” Lori’s mom asked me.
Stopping to think about it for the first time, I wept.
Dads under pressure
New research has found that when a premature baby comes home it’s actually dads who feel slightly more stress.
Having to be the rock holding the family together compounds the additional stress of caring for a baby who was born too soon.
Feeling that their role is to be strong, new dads suffer in silence, often concealing the real pressures they are under.
Distant during the birth but in the spotlight afterwards
A recent UK study examined the experience of dads whose babies were born prematurely.
They found that while many fathers felt excluded during labour, they were often the first parent to see their child in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They typically experienced this alone, while their partner was recovering on the ward.
Some fathers described this experience as being “frightening and disappointing” and felt emotionally detached. But, on returning to the maternity ward they felt pressure to relay their experience in a positive light to reassure their partner.
Despite feeling emotionally detached and isolated on their first visit to NICU, new dads also feel hurt when mums are given the first opportunity to hold their premature baby.
Taking baby home from the NICU
Dr Craig Garfield, lead researcher of the study into how the stress of bringing a premature baby home takes its toll on new fathers, explains the shock new fathers feel as they go from a fully staffed and monitored setting of a neonatal ward to home.
Dad goes from a situation where the baby and mom are cared for by experts in the hospital to having to simultaneously care for his baby, partner and work. He is supposed to be the ‘rock’ for his partner but the stress can really set in.
It’s this pressure to take on multiple roles and to stay strong in each, that can compound the stress dads are feeling.
New dads find themselves having to make decisions about how to care for their previously hospitalised infant, as well as fielding calls, keeping family and friends up to date and caring for their partner.
Stress rockets for dads after bringing baby home
Researchers measured the amount of the stress hormone cortisol present in the saliva of both parents.
It comes as no surprise that in the study of 86 parents, the stress levels of both mothers and fathers were found to be high while their baby was in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Having a premature baby is an incredibly stressful experience for both parents.
What is interesting is that research found that in the first 14 days after birth the mother’s stress levels remained stable, whereas the dad’s levels increased.
This suggests that bringing a premature baby home could be the litmus paper to ignite further pressures for new dads.
New dads hide the stress they are under
In research dads were found to conceal the real pressures they were under. They reported less stress than the scientific experiments revealed.
Father’s cortisol levels were found to be much higher than the stress they reported to be under, indicating that new dads were not in touch with stress they were actually feeling or at least unwilling to admit it.
New mums admitted feeling of frustration that their partners acted tough and hid their emotions, instead of opening up and talking about their feelings or asking for more support.
Dr Garfield said:
(Dads) are actually internally feeling more stress than what they were reporting. That has lots of significance. We need to find other ways to get at what dad is experiencing.
Care for the baby, care for the mum, but where’s the care for dad?
A small scale, but notable, Swedish study examined the experience of new dads following the premature birth of their babies.
The study summarised how fathers felt and the complex range of emotions and concerns they faced:
Fathers described their experiences of having a preterm infant, as getting into the midst of something never previously reflected on. It was important to have information and to know what was going on, but it was difficult to understand what was happening. The fathers were protective over the mother and infant. They wanted to be with both the mother and the infant as much as possible and wished to be seen as a natural part in the care. However, fathers had their own needs and, therefore, needed to be cared for as well.
Dr Garfield also highlights the crucial importance that the needs of new dad’s are recognised. He said:
Dads should be telling the mom to go take a walk, take a shower, see a friend. But moms can also say, ‘Why don’t you go to the gym, see your friends, meet someone after work?’ as ways to reduce some of the stress.
Parents need to be better prepared when taking premature baby home
Dr Garfield believes that the research underlines a crucial need for more constructive and practical advice and support to be given to parents before they take their premature babies home from hospital, especially for dads who report feeling more stress.
Mums are given a lot of coaching and advice. Dads will say they do not know what to do. We do a great job of preparing these babies to go home. Have we prepared the parents well enough to send them home?’
Taking more time to prepare both parents for the transition from hospital to home can benefit both mums, dads and their newborn babies.
Garfield stressed this importance, saying:
Babies thrive when parents thrive, and if parents are stressed out, that can impact their parenting of the child, the relationship between the mother and father can alter infant attachment.
Dads matter too
Dads have to shoulder a huge responsibility during their child’s birth and in the weeks afterwards. If their baby is premature these stresses and responsibilities can increase manifold.
Trying to balance their roles, while simultaneously fearing for the health of their tiny babies can place a huge strain on dads. And when there is no outlet to talk through the conflicting feelings, they can build up and up.
Talking to The Telegraph, Jeffrey Holmes , dad to a premature son born at just 22 weeks, said:
You don’t get time to think.
He was born, then whisked away, put on a heater, wires put in…
You hear all the clichés – “He’ll [grow to] be big, he’ll be strong” – but you just have to go day by day and pray, basically.
If we go back to Aron’s reaction to being asked about his own feelings after the birth of his twin sons, his response is telling:
“How are you doing?” Lori’s mom asked me.
Stopping to think about it for the first time, I wept.
No parent thinks that their baby will be born too soon and when it happens, every day they spend with their tiny baby is a blessing.
Living day by day, sometimes hour by hour, hoping that your tiny baby will fight and pull through takes its toll.
Dads need support and time and the chance to talk through their feelings, right along with mums.
See our article 8 great ways to start dad and baby bonding, for great ideas for how fathers can start bonding with little ones from birth.
- “Parents’ first moments with their very preterm babies: a qualitative study”, National Center for Biotechnology Information
- “Born too soon: One dad’s story of preemie twins”, NBC News
- “Supporting Fathers in a NICU: Effects of the HUG Your Baby Program on Fathers’ Understanding of Preterm Infant Behavior”, National Center for Biotechnology Information
- “Parents’ first moments with their very preterm babies: a qualitative study”, BMJ
- “When a Preemie Goes Home, Dad Stresses Out”, Consumer health day
- “The birth of premature infants: Experiences from the fathers’ perspective”, Sciencedirect
- “Premature birth: the fight for survival”, The Telegraph