When a baby is admitted to neonatal care, there is a lot of focus on mum. She may be unwell after the birth and receiving care from the midwives. We know that dads and partners struggle yet we find that more mums are reaching out for help than dads. Dads also tell us it feels easier for mums to access support and they don’t know where to start. Men tend to hide their feelings which can result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder later down the line. We want to ensure neonatal dads have an accessible support network.
Dads might also feel under pressure to return to work. Some new dads have to take their paternity leave when their baby is on the neonatal unit, or they may have to use up holidays or take unpaid leave. It can be very stressful. You might find you have no time to stop and address your own thoughts and feelings .
Tips from one Neonatal dad to another
One of our dads has come up with some tips and coping strategies for new dads who find themselves on a neonatal journey.
- Arriving at NICU is extremely daunting and overwhelming. Take each day as it comes, try not to overwhelm yourselves with the bigger picture.
- Due to COVID my wife and I had to go in to the neonatal unit separately, so it was important for us to catch up before we crossed over on any updates. This meant we were consistent in what was going on and anything we wanted to follow up on.
- Speak to nurses when you arrive about the days plan, to get an update on the current situation and how your baby has been throughout the day/night.
- We phoned up every morning to check how our son’s night had been and every night to ensure the night shift had all the relevant information from the day.
- Get involved in as much as you can, this can be daunting at the start, but the nurses will help you. Nappy changes, NG tube feeds, weigh day – don’t be afraid to ask for help. I found this was important to be close to my son. It also helps you bond with the fantastic team looking after your child.
- We tried to be present for ward rounds and speak to the consultants in discussing our son’s care and steps forward.
- Crucially be your child’s voice throughout their time in hospital – never shy away from asking questions. Try and avoid using google; take the medical advice from the professionals. Express your views on you child’s care and any concerns you may have – after all, staff always reiterated to us that as parents and by being at the hospital every day we knew our son than any of them. Never be afraid to speak up.
- Read to your baby, this gave a sense on normality, and comforted both of us. We also used black and white books which are amazing for stimulation.
- Ask for bonding squares, not just for Mum but for Dad too, so you can keep hold of one and baby can have the other. Swap them each day so baby has your smell.
- Containment holding for comfort and when your baby us distressed/unhappy really works. Cuddles and skin to skin everyday was so important for our bond and for our baby to have a change of scene.
- Making sure my wife was comfortable at home each evening when she came back from hospital was really important for me to sort so she could express, eat, sleep. Hospital life is relentless!
- Don’t be afraid to cry and open up to people, I am one to never show my emotions, but this changed on Day 1 of being in NICU. The journey is difficult but rewarding in the end. If you bottle up your emotions and your thoughts, you won’t perform the best for your child.
The story below has been written by one of our neonatal dads who was deeply affected by his son’s traumatic birth. It really highlights the need for more support for dads in neonatal care.
My son was born very early at 24 weeks gestation. He was born in a very bad way… in a breech position and my wife had a large bleed leading to our son swallowing a lot of her blood. He was tiny, weighing 1lb 7oz.
I was completely petrified the day he was born. It was like my worst nightmare but it was real. Just after my son was born I listened to the medical team as they connected him to a ventilator, lines and monitors. My wife was unconscious and the midwife was panicking due to the amount of blood she had lost. Then the beeps from the medical devices connected to my son became weaker and weaker until they stopped. There must have been a team of 15 medical staff in the room but all was completely silent. I was praying so hard my hands turned white and I remember thinking that this just cannot happen. I am still haunted by this day now and the thought that I could have lost my wife and little boy, fills me with a fear that I’ve never felt before.
Despite my son’s very early arrival and having a long list of severe medical issues he managed to pull through against all odds. We had a long and stressful stay in NICU and he came home on oxygen. After only a few days home he was rushed back into hospital after catching a cold. Our son remained on oxygen for 1 year which was challenging for me.
I felt I had a lot of pressure on me. I am self employed, so I had to continue working despite what was going on at home and this was hard. We had agreed the sale on our house and were house hunting when our son was born. I had to take on that responsibility as I didn’t want my wife becoming any more stressed.
Somehow, and I don’t know how, I managed to keep everything running pretty smoothly during the dark days in NICU but I found that I really struggled once things settled down. It was like bad weather moved into my mind and stayed there. The weather wasn’t really stormy but was gloomy and depressing. I felt sad and negative, and a bit alone. The strange thing is that I didn’t realise how bad it had affected me until I came out of it. I understand now that the symptoms are typical of PTSD, but even though I tried, I couldn’t get any metal health support and this almost led to my business falling apart. I felt let down by the system.
I guess I did some real soul searching and I opened up to my wife about how I was feeling, and that was the beginning of me admitting it to myself. I had to almost pick everything apart so I could put it all back together again and it was difficult. I started talking to a few other dads from NICU who I had kept in touch with and it was a surprise and a relief to find out they felt the same. It has been a long road for me. We’re a few years on now and I still struggle to think about my boy’s birth, but things have got easier.
If I could give another bloke on NICU some advice it would be to talk – talk to other dads on the unit, especially those who have come out the other side of NICU. Reach out for help. It is out there and it is getting easier to find.
Spoons has a private Dads Facebook group. This is a safe space for dads who experience neonatal care to chat to other dads and share their experiences. If you are a dad who has experienced neonatal care in Greater Manchester you can request to join the group via this link Spoons Dads Facebook Group