The birth of a premature infant can throw a family’s world into utter turmoil. The strangeness of the NICU… the heartbreak of watching a baby that should still be in the womb fight for life… the constant need to juggle responsibilities… the uncertainty of it all. These things and more can take a serious toll on the emotional and physical health of preemie parents.
That’s why even though we know how tempting it can be to throw oneself body, mind, and soul into the task of watching over a preemie, we counsel new parents of premature babies to make time, whenever possible, for things like healthy meals, fitness, and sleep.
Many parents coping with the effects of prematurity, particularly those who are new to the NICU, can feel incredibly guilty for taking even a few moments of time away from their babies. If that sounds like you, it’s incredibly important that you internalize the fact that staying strong for your new baby or babies means staying strong.
“There’s a saying: when mama’s not happy, nobody is happy, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that,” said Christa Terry, preemie mom and co-creator of the Hello Mamas app. “I don’t know if babies can pick up on a parent’s stress levels but I do know you can support your baby better when you’re not at the end of your rope.”
When you stop sleeping and eating, when you let yourself give into feelings of despair, or you stop doing the things that center you, it becomes easy to burn out. It sounds counter-intuitive – that doing more can prevent burnout – but good nutrition, rest, and relaxation are not things that can fall by the wayside.
Time is often the issue cited by preemie parents who aren’t taking care of themselves, but in many cases, priorities can be shifted. Maybe the house chores simply don’t get done. Some, though not all, moms and dads of premature babies may be able to set up flex time arrangements at their jobs.
“You might not be able to get time off from work – especially if you’re self-employed,” Christa added. “That was my situation, and I had to make compromises in my life to make sure I didn’t go crazy. I spent every moment I could in the NICU and when I wasn’t there, I worked. I didn’t try to keep the house clean or cook meals or do anything else. Those were my priorities and I wasn’t going to stress out about anything else because those two things were stressful enough.”
And as difficult as it might be, sometimes taking care of yourself may mean spending some time outside of the NICU when you might otherwise be there so you can recharge your batteries with a hearty meal, a visit with friends, a trip to the gym, a date with your spouse or partner, or even a nap.
You will be a better parent for the time you spend caring for yourself now because you’ll have the energy and focus to be fully present when you’re in the hospital with your child, dealing with the challenges of the NICU. Your strength will help bolster your baby’s strength, and your inner calm will help you find creative ways to nurture and bond with him or her during this difficult time. So please don’t ever feel guilty for taking the time to take care of yourself – in doing so, you’re ultimately doing what is best for your preemie.