Fathers bear a unique burden in the NICU. At a time when dads most want to bond with their babies and support their partners, they are being pulled in many different directions. They are often still working and managing everything outside the hospital, and when they come to the hospital they often find that there isn’t a lot of room or help for them.
Research tells us that NICU fathers are at a higher risk of depression than fathers of full term infants, and that they can be more stressed than moms during the transition home. While some hospitals are now offering support groups for NICU dads, most parents say that help for dads is sadly lacking. We asked Andrew, an NICU graduate father, to share his story and some tips for other dads.
When my wife told me that we were pregnant, I never could have imagined how the next 12 months would play out. I had just started my new job in which I work remotely from home, eliminating my commute and allowing me more time at home with our child once born. Things were shaping up quite nicely.
But then my wife’s water broke in the middle of the night. We drove to the hospital where she was admitted into the High Risk Obstetrics Ward; a week later, our daughter was born at 25 weeks gestation.
Everything has turned out well for us in the end. Our stay in the NICU was a very positive thing, but lasted several months, which can be taxing on anyone. If I can share any advice with other NICU fathers, it would be this.
1) Keep some balance
In total, we were just shy of four months in the hospital. Between this and work (as most of us dads continue working during this), it’s easy to get emotionally and mentally drained — no one can keep their spirits up that long if all they know is work and a hospital room. I kept some balance by trying to get to the gym most days. This was a good tool for me to burn off the stress of work and/or the hospital. For you, whether it’s the gym, music or something else, try to keep up something that will help keep a fresh mind.
2) Be at the hospital every day that you can
Being at the hospital daily not only allows you to see more of your child, it keeps your wife from feeling isolated in the NICU experience. Additionally, having face-to-face time with the medical staff allows you to know your baby’s caregivers and ask questions. You also get to participate in the care for your preemie, whether that’s changing diapers, taking his/her temperature, or Kangaroo Care.
I realize this is not possible for all fathers. We were fortunate in that we were close, I could work remotely in the hospital, and we don’t have any other children to take care of. However, I felt better the days I was able to hold my daughter and talk to her nurse; the days I was at a client site I was less at ease.
3) Don’t feel odd being the only guy
The NICU can feel like a pretty female- centered environment. For example, it can sometimes feel odd being the only male in the Family Lounge during an information ses- sion—there might be two women presenting, six mothers, two grandmothers, and you’re the only man. However, once you take part in the session, you realize that discomfort is only in your head, and that the NICU com- munity is focused on getting babies healthy, and staying healthy once they’re home. Also, babies need their dads. Babies love hear- ing the sounds of a father’s voice and they love being held by their fathers. By being present, by supporting your partner, and by being there for your baby, you are being a great dad, even if it doesn’t feel like what you expected.
4) Anticipate and plan for the discharge date
One of the challenges for NICU parents is not knowing the discharge date. When our daughter arrived in the NICU, we were told she would stay up to her due date, and likely beyond—it all depended on her progress. So I had trouble planning on when to take time off work—if I asked for the week of my daughter’s due date, what if she wasn’t discharged? Would I have to keep moving my vacation back a week at a time each week?
By the time she was discharged, I was in the midst of wrapping up a project at work, and wanted to close it out (it was so close tobeing finished, I felt it was easier to do myself rather than try to hand it off). We stayed overnight at the hospital for one to two weeks before our daughter was discharged (where I didn’t sleep very well); when our daughter came home, like most babies, she would cry at night (and I wouldn’t sleep very well).
I ended up working for five weeks after our daughter came home before I took a week off —I was completely mentally drained after seven weeks of not sleeping enough and having the stress of work to deal with. If I could have done this over again, I would have tried to transfer the project to a colleague a couple weeks before our daughter’s due date, and taken on a short term project and/or provided support on the project rather than be the lead.
Everyone’s work situation is different, but I felt of everything in our NICU experience, this was the piece I handled the worst, and would advise anyone else from doing this if they can avoid it.
Overall, our experience in the hospital was a positive one – we didn’t expect a positive experience when my wife’s water broke. Inaddition to all the other firsts we experienced in the hospital, we’ve now experienced first birthdays and my first Father’s Day at home,and I couldn’t be happier.
By being present, by supporting your partner, and by being there for your baby, you are being a great dad, even if it doesn’t feel like what you expected.
Links and resources for NICU dads
Studies mentioned in article:
Fathers Mental Health Network: https://fathersmentalhealth.com/