Some parents of preemies are lucky enough to be able to spend long days in the NICU, even when their babies are there for an extended stay. Other moms and dads, however, have other children at home who need love and care or they aren’t lucky enough to have a lengthy maternity or paternity leave. And for some parents, spending long hours in the NICU is exhausting and emotionally draining, and can’t keep up the pace seven days a week.
The reality for almost all parents is that spending every waking minute by a preemie’s side simply isn’t feasible. This presents what can seem like a unique challenge… namely, how you bond with your preemie when you can’t be with him or her. Many moms and dads worry that because they can’t be there in the NICU, they’re missing out on precious bonding time and that the long-term parent-child relationship may be damaged in some way. This is a perfectly normal fear, but also an unfounded one. Bonding is an ongoing process – one that continues long after you leave the NICU behind. Not being able to change every diaper or handle every late night feeding won’t matter in the long run.
But it’s still difficult to be away from your preemie, particularly when you’re feeling a range of emotions about your baby’s future. Visit the NICU whenever you can, let go of the guilt you probably feel when you can’t, and use some or all of the techniques outlines below to distance bond with your preemie, all day every day.
- Scent is one of the very first ways babies identify and bond with their parents. You can give your preemie the comfort of your scent by wearing an all natural, NICU approved lovey blanket or small stuffed toy against your body for a few days and then placing that object – with the NICU’s permission – in your baby’s isolette. Refresh it every few days or, better yet, have a few scent-infused objects in rotation.
- Make the NICU feel more like home. Ask your NICU nurses if you can tape a photograph or two to the outside of your preemie’s isolette so your baby can see your face and your family when his or her eyes are open. Consider decorating your corner of the NICU insofar as it’s permissible – your preemie won’t care but personalizing his or her space can help you feel more connected to your baby.
- Do your preemie’s laundry. Seriously. Some NICUs provide clothing and receiving blankets, along with laundry services, but a big part of bonding is simply caring for your baby. Bringing in clothes and receiving blankets for your preemie, keeping a little laundry basket in his or her area, and doing the wash will help you feel like you’re an important part of your preemie’s life, even when you can’t be in the NICU.
- If you’re a mom, pump milk for your preemie. Breastmilk has many benefits for preemies, and it’s something moms can do to take care of their babies even when being in the NICU – or participating in feedings – is not possible.
- Consider who else can be there when you can’t. Maybe your parents or your partner’s parents are retired and would love to spend some time in the NICU with their grandchild. If it’s possible, consider a tag team arrangement with your co-parent where he or she is in the NICU when you’re not and vice versa. Family bonding can be almost as important as parental bonding so don’t be afraid to let relatives take a NICU shift – but similarly, don’t be offended if they are a little afraid of spending time in a hospital environment.
- Some NICUs will let moms and dads keep a voice recorder at a preemie’s bedside and play it now and then when they can’t be there. Ask a nurse if you can record yourself reading a story or singing and how often they’ll play it for your baby.
- Call when you need to. Don’t ever feel like you’re being a pest because you’re phoning the NICU every day or even a few times a day. Some moms who are waking up in the middle of the night to pump will call to check in when they’re pumping. If you’re at work, call during your lunch hour.
- Journaling can help you feel closer to your baby, particularly over time. You may not be able to be there for every NICU milestone, but your nurses may be willing to help you keep your journal current by recording procedures and feedings that you miss. Keeping a record of what happens when you are in the NICU – including your feelings and thoughts – can help you internalize the fact that, yes, you are bonding with your preemie.