For many families, having a preterm born or ill newborn baby is a very stressful and frightening event. It is an emotional, physical, and practical challenge for all involved family members. Especially parents can have very complex and conflicting emotions, changing during the entire hospital stay and even after discharge. Preterm birth usually happens unexpectedly. Parents coping with the situation of having a baby in the NICU have had no time to prepare for this circumstance.
In the beginning many parents are shocked with a feeling of chaos and helplessness. The new, unfamiliar environment at the NICU and the technical equipment surrounding their baby can cause anxiety and fear. Additional feelings such as sadness, anger, fear, shame, and guilt, can overwhelm them one by one or all at the same time. At the same time, parents may have other responsibilities left at home or at work.
Taking over left tasks or organisational and administrative issues for the family could be of great support. When explaining new thing to them it is important to do so patiently and sensitively due to the challenging situation. Parents need clear and easily understandable information, ideally in their native language. It could also be helpful for them to acknowledge and talk about their feelings. Being together with their baby as often as possible is one of the most important issues during this critical period of time. However, parents also need space and time for themselves.
Mothers and fathers usually have a lot of questions about their baby’s care, development, and prognosis. Sometimes they are confused about the treatment the baby receives. Doctors and nurses are the first contact persons to be consulted for all health related questions.
Most parents might rank their own needs below the needs of their baby. However, it is very important for them to look after themselves. Lowering levels of distress for parents is likely to have a positive effect on the baby as well. Basic needs such as eating sufficiently and getting enough sleep, may help to structure the day which can be comforting for the parents.
Psychologists, social workers, or special trained healthcare professionals can help parents and other family members to cope with the shock as well as to interact with the baby. Talking to the NICU team, the family members, or to other affected families at the unit can also be helpful in the beginning and later on. In some countries families with preterm born or ill newborn babies receive social or financial help from the government or other public bodies. Information about preterm birth and how to get help can also be obtained from parent organisations.