Having a premature 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 a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) without needing emotional support. It is normal for parents to feel overwhelmed by stress and confused by their feelings.

How can I get help?

The doctors, nurses, and social workers on the unit can be wonderful sources of support. Many hospitals have parent support groups. These groups include parents who have already gone through what you are facing now. Advice from these veteran parents can be very comforting. If your nursery does not have a support group, there are support groups on the worldwide web.

What are some common feelings of parents of premature babies?

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

Mothers and fathers tend to cope well together during the early days of having a premature baby. This togetherness comes from the realization that often there is a danger threatening the family. Later on, many mothers and fathers have different ways of coping with a premature baby. This difference is usually easy to understand. For example, many mothers take longer than fathers to grieve over not delivering a healthy baby, and fathers may not understand this. Fathers can also become frightened over the mother's health and become more over-protective than the mother wishes. Both mothers and fathers become frustrated over the roller coaster of emotions they feel when their baby has setbacks. This frustration may lead to anger. Another source of frustration comes when parents feel that they are often powerless to help their baby's recovery. But parents are not powerless. Parents can learn to accept that it is OK for each other to have different ways of coping with a premature baby. Then parents can help each other cope, rather than be irritated because the other person is being insensitive. This understanding is really the best why to cope as a family.

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

Unfortunately, many parents find that fearing for their baby's life does not go away as rapidly as they would like. Even when a premature baby comes home, some (perhaps many) parents have flashbacks of fear about their baby's birth or hospitalization. These are normal reactions to the stress of having a premature baby. Sometimes parents feel like they are not normal because they are still afraid, even though they "know in their mind" that their baby is healthy. Realizing that these flashbacks are common helps parents to cope with them. The flashbacks decrease over time and they do go away.

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

Sadness and depression are common reactions to having a premature baby. 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 in their right mind would want to experience the following sequence of events: mother on bed rest, an emergency C-section, fearing that mother and baby might die, visiting the NICU day after day after day, hearing bad news about the baby's health, worrying about the rest of your family and facing huge amounts of debt.

Even taking a healthy premature baby home is a source of stress. Parents who are sad because some of this has happened are having very normal feelings. Sadness and depression may become excessive, however. If feelings of depression become very troublesome, it would be wise to ask the medical staff for help.

Are my fears and feelings excessive? Am I going crazy?

The majority of parents of premature infants feel this way, so these feelings are not signs of insanity. Unfortunately, having many feelings of distress is a normal coping pattern for parents of high-risk babies. Here are some common fears and feelings of parents of premature babies:

Many times parents are afraid to talk about these feelings because parents are concerned that someone will think that they are coping poorly. Experienced members of the medical staff and other parents of premature infants have come to learn that feelings like these are common. It can be comforting to talk about these feelings with someone who can understand you.

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

The causes of anger are pain, suffering, and frustration. Parents of premature babies are in frustrating situations that produce pain and suffering; so, of course, many parents will feel anger. Often parents are afraid to express anger to the medical staff, but this fear should not stop parents from expressing their concerns. A recent emphasis in perinatal care and neonatal care is called "Family-Centered Care". This means that the medical staff is concerned with the well-being of families, in addition to the well-being of babies. In order for "Family-Centered Care" to work well, parents should be encouraged to express their concern, even if they are angry concerns.

What are the early stages of emotional adaptation that a parent goes through in adjusting to the experience of having a sick infant?

Some parents feel that learning about the emotional stages or phases of adaptation helps them understand what they are going through and what to expect. Although these can be listed as stages, the stages are not clear cut and often a parent is in more than one stage at a time. Therefore, we have grouped them as early and later emotions.

Early reactions (stages) are:

Can I have more than one of these emotions at once?

Most parents experience all of these emotions, both immediately before and after the baby is born.

How long do these feelings last?

Different emotions may last for different lengths of time. Shock and denial usually resolve more quickly than the grief, sadness, anger, and guilt. Even after you think you have resolved your feelings, you may find yourself going back and experiencing these feelings again. Parents vary in the time course of resolving these emotions. Some of this relates to the degree of illness and the time course of the infant. Sicker infants take longer to stabilize and keep their parents on an emotional roller coaster for longer periods of time.

What happens later?

Later is a period of attaining equilibrium and beginning to reorganize. It includes :

How long does it take to finally adjust?

Resolution of these emotions usually takes months to years. During this period some parents become involved in support groups or parent organizations.

What can I do to help myself?

Some things that parents tell us are helpful are: