Emotional Responses of Parents

Having a premature or ill baby is one of the most stressful experiences a parent can have. Most parents find it very difficult to go through the experience of having their baby in the NICU without needing emotional support. It's normal to feel overwhelmed by stress and confused by your feelings.

Our doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains can be wonderful sources of support. Talking to other NICU parents can also be comforting, but keep in mind that every baby and every experience is different. If you’d like to talk to a NICU graduate parent, speak with your baby’s nurse.

Common feelings of parents with premature babies

I feel guilty that I did something to cause my baby to be premature.

This is a common reaction. Parents of premature infants often feel some guilt. Mothers who have had the best prenatal care, who have watched their diets and who have neither smoked nor drank alcohol may still have a baby that needs NICU care. In most cases, the cause will be something out of your control and you may never really know why. Talking with your doctor or others will help these feelings of guilt go away.

I worry that I don't feel more love for my baby.

When premature babies are born, almost all parents have some fear that their baby will die. Because of this fear, parents naturally have what is known as anticipatory grief. It’s a way of preparing yourself emotionally, in case your baby would die.

Anticipatory grief helps reduce the pain you're already feeling. For example, some parents of premature babies delay giving their baby a name. They believe that their baby's death would be easier to adjust to if the baby had no name. This fear of death creates a temporary separation of the bond between premature babies and parents.

This is why many parents wonder why they don't love their baby more. When their baby starts to get healthy, almost all parents of premature babies re-establish bonds of love with their child. If you find you continue to have problems loving your baby, talk to someone on our staff.

I'm grieving.

Having a premature baby involves many losses. It's natural to grieve. During pregnancy and even before, you created hopes and dreams for your baby. You may have had hopes for a boy or a girl, brown eyes or blue, dark hair or blonde. You also had hopes for a healthy, full term baby, and these hopes were shattered. You’re coping with that loss now, and that involves grieving.

Many women feel inadequate that they didn't carry their pregnancy to full term. Often mothers of premature infants feel they aren't complete women or mothers. You want to do so much for your baby, but it may feel as though there is little that you can actually do while your baby is sick. It’s normal for you to experience this grief. Support from others can help.

I'm worried that my baby won't know I'm her parent.

This is a common concern, but it’s likely your baby already knows you are her parent. Babies learn to recognize their parents' voices while they're in the womb. A premature baby can tell the difference between her mother's voice and the voices of the doctors and nurses. It’s been shown that the oxygen saturation of premature babies improves when their parents are near. Unfortunately, treatment of premature babies sometimes requires doctors and nurses to perform uncomfortable procedures. But this gives your baby the chance to understand her parents don't cause discomfort. So when you gently touch your baby, talk softly. Your baby will learn that you have the voice that is special, the voice that gives comfort, the voice your baby will go home with.

I'm worried that treatment in the NICU will have long-lasting emotional effects on my baby.

Research indicates there are no long-term emotional effects of the uncomfortable procedures that are sometimes necessary in the NICU. Premature babies grow up to be just as emotionally normal as babies that are born healthy at full term.

I'm afraid to ask questions of the doctors and nurses.

There are so many medical terms and abbreviations used in the NICU that no parent can understand them all. Many parents are afraid to ask questions because they don't want to appear ignorant. But remember, the doctors and nurses went to school for years to learn these terms, so they certainly don't expect you to know them.

It’s important for you to understand what’s going on with your baby. Most of the time, getting an answer to a question will help reduce your worries. There are no dumb questions. If you feel confused by what’s going on, have someone else with you (your spouse, your own parent, a friend) when you ask questions. This may help clarify your understanding.

Why are my spouse/partner and I not communicating well about how we feel?

Mothers and fathers tend to cope well together in the early days of having a premature or ill baby. This togetherness comes from the realization that there’s a danger threatening the family. As time passes, mothers and fathers often develop different ways of coping.

Mothers often take longer to grieve over not delivering a healthy baby. Fathers may not understand this. Fathers can become frightened over the mother's health and become more overprotective than the mother wishes. Both mothers and fathers become frustrated over the roller coaster of emotions they feel if their baby has setbacks. This frustration may lead to anger.

Understand you each have different ways of coping with the situation. Then help each other, rather than becoming irritated that the other person is being insensitive. This understanding is really the best way to cope as a family.

Why am I afraid even though my baby is getting healthy?

Unfortunately, many parents find that fearing for their baby's life doesn't go away as quickly as they'd like. Even when a premature or ill baby comes home, some parents have flashbacks of fear about their baby's birth or hospitalization. These are normal reactions to the stress of having a premature or ill baby. Sometimes parents feel like they aren’t normal because they’re still afraid, even though they "know in their minds" their baby is healthy. Realize that these feelings are common, and will decrease over time until they eventually go away.

Why do I feel sad and depressed and have so little energy?

Sadness and depression are common reactions. And those reactions can cause you to feel tired. Everyone dreams of giving birth to a healthy, full-term baby. Not having this dream come true is a natural cause of sadness. No one wants to visit the NICU day after day, hearing bad news about their baby's health, worrying about the rest of their family and puzzling over financial concerns. Even taking a healthy pre-term baby home is a source of stress.

If you're sad or depressed, understand it’s normal to feel this way. If your feelings of sadness or depression become worrisome, talk to your baby’s nurse. She will be able to help.

Are my fears excessive? Am I going crazy?

Most parents of premature or ill infants feel this way. These feelings aren't signs of insanity. In fact, having fears is a normal coping pattern for parents of high-risk babies. These feelings are particularly common:

  • When the phone rings at home I panic because it might be a call from the hospital with bad news.
  • I'm afraid to walk into the hospital because something bad may have happened.
  • I'm afraid that I won't find my baby in the isolette.
  • This experience has been so terrible I sometimes wish my baby would just die, so that this whole thing would be over. I feel like an awful person for thinking this.

Many parents are afraid to talk about these feelings because they think someone will think they’re not coping well. Experienced members of our medical staff and other parents of premature infants have come to learn that feelings like these are quite common. It can be comforting to talk about these feelings with someone who understands.

Why am I angry with the staff about my baby's treatment?

The causes of anger are pain, suffering and frustration. The parents of premature babies are in frustrating situations that produce pain and suffering so, of course, many will feel anger. Often parents are afraid to express anger to the staff, but this fear should not stop parents from expressing their concerns.

Our emphasis on family-centered care means we’re concerned about the well-being of families, in addition to the well-being of babies. You’re encouraged to voice your concerns, even if they are angry concerns.