Welcoming a new baby into the family is a massive transition. But when the baby arrives earlier than expected, the stress can feel overwhelming. For parents of a premature baby, having support can help lighten the load.
Preemie parents need care, too
For OSF HealthCare Mission Partner Rachel Harmon, it was the support of her premature son’s care team that helped her through one of the most difficult times in her life.
Rachel’s son, Waylon, was born with spina bifida at 34 weeks. With lots of progress to make before he got to go home, he spent the first few weeks of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois.
While juggling caring for their newborn in the NICU an hour away from home, Rachel and her husband also continued to be there for their 10-year-old daughter.
It’s often the premature baby who requires all the attention, which can leave behind the NICU parents who are feeling stretched beyond their limits.
The breaking point
When one of Waylon’s nurses prepared to take his temperature, she asked if Rachel would like to help. Wanting to be hands-on in her son’s care, Rachel happily agreed.
As she attempted to take her son’s temperature, the nurse noticed Rachel’s hands shaking uncontrollably. That was when Rachel crumbled. The weeks of caring for her preemie son in the NICU, caring for her older daughter and worrying nonstop had finally caught up to her.
“This sweet nurse noticed right away that something was wrong. She gently took the thermometer out of my hand, placed the side of the crib back up, wrapped her arms around me, lowered me to the floor and just let me cry. She held me tight and surrounded me with her care, compassion and love,” Rachel said.
The nurse directed Rachel to lie down and rest for a few minutes. The weight of caring for a preemie baby is most often felt by the mom. NICU mom guilt is a common feeling among preemie moms who feel they need to take care of everyone else, which often means she isn’t taking care of herself. Compassion and permission to rest for a bit were exactly what Rachel needed in order to be there for everyone and continue to give all she had.
“This nurse changed my life,” Rachel said.
NICU and preemie trauma
Having a premature baby in the NICU isn’t easy on anyone. It interrupts the routine of life. Parents are often away from home for hours on end, eating on the go, getting little sleep, missing other children who are still at home and putting aside all other responsibilities to fully be there for their preemie.
Advice to NICU parents
Dominique Dietz, OSF HealthCare Behavioral Health director, said it’s important to balance visiting your baby with time to recharge yourself.
If you’re a preemie parent, here are some practical tips from a NICU mom and a behavioral health specialist on how to cope.
See a therapist
“Acknowledge that premature birth and a NICU stay are traumatic events. You may experience post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience,” Dominique said.
Use OSF SilverCloud to help manage your feelings.
It’s important to prioritize your mental health as a parent so you can give your all to your family.
Find support groups
Finding a support group to get involved in – online or in person – can be helpful. It’s hard for people who’ve never experienced being the parent of a preemie to understand. Finding support in others who know the road you’re walking can be invaluable. Sharing your experience with others who understand can help cope with NICU PTSD.
Have an outlet
Whether it’s journaling, talking to your support system on the phone each day or listening to music, Rachel recommends having some outside source of relaxation to recharge.
“Don’t bottle it up. Cry if you need to,” Rachel said.
Take time to rest
NICU parents often want to be as involved as possible and likely wonder, “How often should I visit my baby in the NICU?”
“Don’t feel like you need to do everything. You can only give so much of yourself before you need to recharge,” Dominique said.
“It’s OK to go home at night; you don’t need to be there all the time. There’s a number you can call at 2:30 a.m. if you’re worried. But your baby is well taken care of and needs you to be rested and at your best,” Rachel echoed.
Supporting preemie parents
If you know someone who’s in the hospital with their premature baby, you can help, too.
Sending a gift card for meal delivery can save a parent in the hospital from worrying about what they’re going to eat or having to eat another cafeteria meal. A gas gift card will also be put to good use as there are likely many trips back and forth to the hospital.
Offer to make meals to keep in the freezer or drive kids to and from school or the hospital to visit their sibling. You could also offer to pick up groceries or do light housekeeping at their home.
Sometimes parents just need to unload. Let them know you’re a listening ear. As in Rachel’s case, all she needed was someone to pay attention to what she needed and give her permission to take a rest.
Waylon’s nurse knew that especially well.
“I pray for that nurse each day. She not only helped in saving my son’s life, but she saved me that night, too. Her job was to take care of Waylon, but she knew that this mama needed care,” Rachel said.
“I am forever grateful that God had our paths cross.”