Your role as a parent in the NICU is unique and irreplaceable, but it doesn’t always feel that way. When your preemie is ill, it can seem like it’s the doctors and nurses who are playing the number one role in your baby’s life while you watch from the sidelines. Many parents of preemies feel like anything but parents during the NICU days. Even now when more NICUs are implementing family centered care models that are designed to include parents, it’s easy to feel left out.
But even when you can’t be there night and day because you need to work or have other children to care for, remember that parents of preemies are vital! You love your preemie and know them best. Assisting your preemie’s care team as they do what looks like the heavy lifting will not always feel like parenting, but understand that everything you do is just as important, if not more so, to your preemie’s health and wellbeing.
And if you don’t feel like a ‘real’ parent from day one, know that you’re not alone. We polled our community to find out when moms of preemies really felt that parenthood connection and for most of our respondents, it took some time!
The girls were fed on the 3’s round the clock, so it always made me feel so important and like a Mom when I would make sure to be there for as many feedings as I could. Even if they weren’t actually receiving a bottle, but rather a gavage feeding, I still liked to hold each of them while they ate. That always made me feel like a real Mom while the girls were in the NICU. ~ Linda
The first time I held my boy without any wires or monitors connected to him. I knew he was mine, that I was his mum, but being able to hold just him ….. that was something else entirely. ~ Rebecca
I knew I was a parent the first moment I saw her. I felt the connection. But I didn’t feel like a “mom” for a couple months. I think it was more of a building responsibility that made me feel like “mom”. And that moment when all she wanted was me…that only I could make it better. I guess “she” made me feel like a parent. ~ Jessica
When I felt her kick or maybe before that when I saw her little heart beat. Way way before I saw her little face. There are so many things you have to do before they are bore that are just as important as after they are born. Making decisions about your habits and life based on how they will affect the child your are carrying is parenting. Talking to touching and bounding with the little one in your whom is parenting. I felt I knew my girl long before I “met” her. I feel like I felt that even more as a preemie mommy because so much more energy went into keeping her safe and making sure she was as healthy as possible before coming, striving to help her stay inside as long as possible in the end deciding that it would I be best for her to be born early. And then learning how best to care for her making more decisions for her well being and being so exhausted trying to do the best for her. Sacrificing all of me so that she could have the best chance. All of these things made me a parent and they make you a parent even if it doesn’t feel like being able”normal” parent. You’re a parent as soon as that little life forms in your body and you start considering it before yourself. ~ Beth
We felt like parents the night we did a night in at the Hospital to learn his machines he was coming home with! We got to care for him and feed him every feeding change him etc. It was amazing! ~ Elizabeth Ann
We read to our little one every day. It made it feel like we had a routine like we would at home. We had to advocate for our preemie several times, but most specifically when they kept trying to fortify my breast milk to help with weight gain. It just made him throw up. They kept wanting to try it again and I finally , with the help of the NICU lactation consultant, put my foot down and used my best judgement. ~ Steph
I changed that first diaper with a feeling of pride. I don’t think anyone in the world had ever been so excited to change a diaper! We took a thousand pictures – it was quite the momentous day. I remember being scared and excited. The nurse walked me through every step of changing his diaper around the tubes and wires. She was patient and kind and made me feel like this was the only thing that mattered to her at that moment. Whenever possible, we tried to be present for any bath time, diaper time, temperature time – anything that we could do to feel like parents. I craved anything I could do to feel like my preemie’s mom. ~ Laura
So how can you feel more like a parent in the NICU?
Take pleasure in the small ways you can interact with your preemie. Read a book or sing your favorite lullaby whenever you visit the NICU. Participate in your baby’s care as much as you are allowed. If nothing else, a simple touch session – even if it’s just cradling your baby’s head in your hand – can do wonders for your baby and for you. If you feel less than confident, ask a nurse to show you how to safely work around your baby’s medical equipment. When your preemie is ready, ask your baby’s nurses to help you hold your preemie skin-to-skin (also known as ‘kangaroo care’).
Don’t be afraid to ask how you can care for your preemie. Ask your nurse if you can change your baby’s diaper. Ask if you can help with bath time. Ask if you can assist in taking their temperature. Ask if you can help put clothes on your child – even if it is just a hat or pair of socks. Ask if there is anything you can do. Tell the nurses you want to parent your preemie in any way possible.
Be confident that you, your family, and the NICU staff will develop your own routines as time passes. And be patient. Adjust to the realities of parenting a preemie in the NICU as slowly as you need to.