When you have a baby your life changes immediately. When you have a premature or sick baby you are thrown into a world that you probably didn’t know existed. Entering the Neonatal Unit for the first time can be frightening but you will soon get used to all of the machines, wires and beeps and become an expert when it comes to caring for your baby.
Hey It’s Ok………..
To experience a range of emotions – There is no ‘right’ way to feel. You might not feel an immediate attachment to your baby, you might feel shocked, sad, angry, bitter, like you have failed, guilty, isolated, like no-one understands, scared, worried, numb, protective, proud and even happy at times. If you feel like you’re not coping then please seek out support by talking to your partner, a family member, a friend, a nurse, your health visitor or your GP. There is support out there for you, you are not alone.
To have a cry – This is not a sign of weakness and it might help you to get everything out. It’s also OK to not cry, we all cope in different ways.
To look after yourself – you may have had a vaginal delivery or a cesarean section. Either way it’s not something that happens to you every day. Your birth may have been straightforward or with added complications. Physically and mentally your body will need some time to recover and you might be told to rest. Don’t feel bad about this, be kind to yourself, you can only be in one place at a time. Remember, you can always telephone the neonatal unit for an update on your baby.
To grieve for your pregnancy or birth – You might feel cheated that your baby arrived early and you didn’t get to enjoy pregnancy to the end. You never got the birth you wanted and that precious first cuddle in the way you hoped and it is completely natural to grieve for what you never got. It’s normal to have mixed feelings about your body changing, to miss your bump and maybe feel a bit jealous around pregnant women or those that got to take their baby home straight away.
To find expressing hard – being milked by a machine is not the most natural thing in the world and probably something you never imagined yourself doing! Some women find they produce lots of milk and others not so much – this is normal. Follow the advice from your nurse to try to optimise what you produce and ask if you have any questions. Having a photo of your baby and a blanket with their smell on while you express can help increase the flow, as can expressing cot side. If you simply aren’t producing enough,discuss what other feeding options there are for your baby with the nurses. They might suggest that you switch to formula or in some circumstances donor breast milk may be available for a period of time. Whatever your choices are when it comes to feeding your baby you are a good Mum!
To ask for help – Being on the neonatal unit probably means that lots of routine jobs at home just don’t get done. Friends and family will very likely want to offer some help but not know the best way to go about it. Maybe you could suggest they do a bit of shopping for you, make you a meal or even do some of your laundry. If you have other children you may want to arrange for them to be collected from school or nursery to take some of the pressure off.
To forget things – To begin with everything is unfamiliar and there are new faces everywhere you turn… then new faces again with every shift change! You might feel like you’re being bombarded with medical information and terminology and struggle to keep up. Things can change very quickly, it might help to keep a diary so you can take note of important details and jot down any questions you have. This can also be helpful as when you feel ready you can choose to look back over things that have happened.
To ask questions – No one expects you to understand everything about Neonatal Care for premature or sick babies so ask if you need further explanation. A good time to do this is at ward rounds as you will be discussing things that are relevant to your baby. Ask your nurse when the daily ward rounds are so you can get involved. You might also want to ask about practical things such as car park passes and accommodation if you are having to travel some distance to the unit.
To speak up – Shifts change, nurses and doctors can rotate between rooms but you will always be there. You are an advocate for your baby and if you spot anything that causes you concern then don’t be afraid to tell someone about it.
To not want to talk about it – You’ll probably feel like you’re living and breathing the Neonatal Unit and it can be hard when your family and friends all want to know the latest. If you feel under pressure to keep everyone updated you might want to consider posting regular baby updates in a WhatsApp group, on Facebook (you could set up a private page), a blog or similar. This can also be a good way to explain to others how you’re feeling, the importance of hand washing and to politely ask that visitors don’t come to the unit if they are poorly!
To focus on the positives – The first time you hold your baby, getting involved in cares, the first breast or bottle feed, baby gaining weight, giving baby a bath… becoming wireless!! It isn’t always easy and might not feel possible at times but things parents normally do with babies are seen as huge milestones in the neonatal unit and should be celebrated.
To use hospital clothes – Don’t feel guilty! The extra work of washing clothes might cause you more stress at an already stressful time and if your baby is premature you will need to go shopping for tiny baby clothes. Ask the nurses if you can take a few keepsakes and bring in your own clothes when you’re ready.
To make friends – Look over there, yes, there, behind the incubator (or cot) behind the machines there’s someone else watching a baby. Someone with an expression on their face that reminds you of you. That someone will probably know more than anyone what you’re going through. Try talking to them, you never know you could make a new friend for life.
To take a break away from the unit – You really might not want to but please don’t feel bad for having some ‘me time’ to go grab a drink or something to eat, maybe even a bath or a sleep. If you have other children at home you may feel torn but it really is OK for you to spend time with them away from the unit. Your mental health is important, be kind to yourself!
To think about practical things – things you were thinking about before life started on the Neonatal Unit. Maternity pay, the work left unfinished on your desk, the plans you had for the weekend, the holiday you had booked, maybe even the house you were about to move into… it might help you to make a few phone calls and send a few emails (or ask someone to do so on your behalf).
To not want to go back to work – leaving your baby and partner might feel like it’s the last thing you want to do especially if baby is still very poorly. Make sure you have discussed all options available to you with your workplace. Hopefully this will allow you to take a bit of time to decide the best way to take your paternity leave. Once you do return to work you might find that the routine and having a bit of ‘normality’ is helpful. If you find you are struggling please talk to someone rather than bottle things up and if you feel like you aren’t coping then make an appointment to see your GP.
To be nervous about moving to a different hospital – There are many reasons that your baby may need to transfer to another hospital, you might be moving for more intensive care, an operation or a step closer to home. It can be an unsettling time and take a while to become familiar with the new staff and routines. In many ways it might even feel a bit like day 1 again. Ensure this passport is taken with you to try to help with the transition.
To feel upset when others head home – This is what you want more than anything so it’s normal to be a bit mixed up inside and happy to see families going home but sad that it’s not you.
To maybe miss the neonatal unit a little bit – When it’s your turn to bring in ‘the carseat of dreams’ it might be a nice idea to swap contact details with some of the other parents before you leave so you can keep in touch and even arrange to meet up. You could also ask your nurse if there is a unit run Facebook page or similar that would allow you to contact them from time to time too.
To be excited but nervous about taking your baby home – It’s worth remembering that every parent feels like this when they take a baby home. Premature and sick babies might have additional medical needs such as home oxygen and regular medication which can make things even more daunting. The nurses will help to get you ready and build your confidence ready for the big wide world. Good luck and enjoy your baby!
This has been written by Josie Harrison, Mum to 2 boys born 2 years apart at 26+5 and 28+3 gestation.
Through the NWNODN: please send us feedback of your experiences of neonatal care within the NWNODN including any suggestions for areas of improvement. We are keen to celebrate and share examples of outstanding practice, as well as work towards improving services and care when expectations are not met. Please contact us by emailing: