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Nurtured in the NICU: Dad Program

By Erica Rezpecki

Imagine a group of men sitting in a small, half-lit movie theatre. On either end of the room, ten-footscreens display video games – Mario Kart and Forza – and the men take turns playing over slices of pizza, cans of root beer, rounds of foosball, and conversation.

This may sound like a standard – but awesome – night in for a group of guys. But what if I told you that these men are fathers of current or former premature babies, and doctors of these babies,

and that this night in was taking place in the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia?

In the NICU, dads play a key role in supporting the mothers and babies, but the same resources that are available to mothers often aren’t, for various reasons, available or accessible for dads in the same way. This can cause stress, anxiety, and loneliness, especially if they’re unable to talk to anyone about how they’re feeling and feel pressure to be “strong” for their family. To combat this, a group of doctors, parents, and parent volunteers at IWK created the Dad Program – a series of casual events where past and present NICU dads come together with doctors and talk about their concerns for their babies, their own well-being, or other non-medical things if they desire – movies,TV shows or even video games.

Dr. Doug MacMillan, a researcher and retired neonatologist, has understood the importance of families in the care of their premature babies for a long time. He noticed the lack of resources for dads in the NICU at the IWK, and reached out to Leah Whitehead, the head of the Parent Partner Program there. Together, they connected with several current and former NICU dads to host the first meeting.

​When they get together, Dr. MacMillan says, the goal is not to simply continue speaking in medical terms about their babies’ statuses. While he attends to answer the dads’ questions if they have them, Dr. MacMillan says he attends as the “grandparent” for the first half of the meetings, then leaves the dads to talk and connect with each other over their shared experiences.

Sean Smith, one of the leading parent volunteers for the program and the father of a preemie graduate who spent 114 days in the NICU, says he wanted to be a part of the program to give current NICU dads “somebody to talk to who understands what it’s like” and who wouldn’t just “bright-side” their situation. He says that despite their kind intentions, many people who had never had a baby in the NICU would try to find the positives in Sean’s situation during difficult times – because they simply couldn’t empathize with the situation. Sean wanted to be there for new NICU dads as someone who had gone through the experience before and could show them that they’re not alone.

​Both Sean and Doug emphasize how, considering the stigma around men’s mental health in many communities, having a place where men can share their thoughts and feelings, or just relax with people who understand them, is crucial for many NICU dads.

​The meetings have developed from simple sit-down conversations, to shooting hoops, to video game nights, and anything else the dads decide upon, all supported and funded by the hospital. No matter their form, the meetings remain focused on their important original goals: building connections between dads, providing genuine support, and giving dads a space to voicetheir thoughts, feelings, and experiences, judgement-free.

Nurtured in the NICU stories are created by the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation to highlight the wonderful work of doctors, nurses, and parent volunteers in Canada’s NICUs. For more information or if you would like to share an initiative happening in your NICU, please send us an email at

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