Mom And Baby Need Ya!
Larry Feevey of Linesville, Pennsylvania, never imagined he'd be the father of two premature infants. With both pregnancies, Feevey's wife Kelly suffered from preeclampsia, a condition typically resulting in high blood pressure, protein in the urine and swelling of the hands, face or ankles.
Left untreated, this condition can be fatal for mom and baby. And its only known cure is delivery of the baby -- sometimes, before the baby is completely ready. A full term pregnancy lasts between 38 and 42 weeks, with 40 weeks being the target number. A baby born before the end of 37 weeks' gestation is considered premature.
During the labor and delivery of a preemie, whether from a cesarean section or vaginal birth, fathers find themselves surrounded by a flurry of activity and reeling in a world of unexpected emotions. Most want to be involved but are not sure where or how they fit into this experience. Feeling like mere bystanders, they may shy away from any involvement simply because they feel uncomfortable and helpless.
"Many men say they don't know what to do and don't want to do the wrong thing. Just being there is a good enough start," says Catharine Shaner, MD, FAAP, of Allentown, Pennsylvania. "Be the father you had or wanted to have, not the father society or those around you think you should be."
Real men feel
Shock, anger, sadness and disbelief are common emotions for the preemie dad. Adam Strack of Evanston, Illinois, recalls the first time he saw his one-pound, seven-ounce daughter Amanda. "She looked like a baby bird pinned to the bed. My only real memory of that first encounter is shock. Shock at her appearance, shock at her size, and shock that this was happening to me."
Australia native Terry Trememthick, whose son Samuel was born at 28 weeks' gestation, encountered a vast array of emotions. "I was shocked. This skinny, out-of-proportion baby was not what I expected."
The NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) can prove jarring for the new preemie dad. Feevey advises, "Don't let the shock of being in the NICU scare you away. Alarms ringing, nurses endlessly going from here to there, hurrying along, doctors, more alarms, more explanations. Please ask someone to take some time and explain what [all of these] are trying to tell you."
Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, Shelley Stevenson, RN, worked as a neonatal nurse in various parts of the United States. She worked in the NICU -- and experienced it as a preemie mom. She suggests creating a good rapport with the NICU staff. "Get to know the nurses who are at the bedside 24 hours a day. Ask a lot of questions. Don't ever feel like [you're asking] a dumb question or feel funny if you've already asked it before. The people in the NICU understand." She also advises, "Get to know one or two nurses who you really click with and feel comfortable with. They can sometimes help with communication with the rest of the staff (neonatologists, surgeons, etc.) who may not be at the bedside when the dad is."
Stevenson also believes that the baby needs to feel the presence of a parent. "The best way is skin to skin contact," she says. "The dad opens his shirt and the baby [lies] on his chest with nothing on but a diaper. Then they put blankets, etc., on the baby, and they [dad and baby] can have some quiet time together."
The benefits of this type of approach, dubbed "kangaroo care," extend further than simple bonding. "Studies show that babies decrease their heart rates and oxygen consumption, and have [fewer] alarms when they do kangaroo care. The baby is kept warm by the father's body heat. I believe it helps the baby's overall disposition and gets [him or her] home faster," says Stevenson.
Preemie parents attest to the wonders of kangaroo care. "I did this with Ryan, our second preemie," states Feevey. "We were at home, so it was a bit easier. I did not do this with Aaron, as it wasn't something commonly practiced at the time. I did spend time with Aaron lying on my chest and both of us falling asleep. I'm not sure anyone has come up with or invented any other greater means of relaxation. It's almost unexplainable."
How can you stay involved while your baby is in the NICU? Dad, don't feel left out because equipment and staff are constantly monitoring your infant. You can share in the experience and bond with your baby in many ways. Dr Neal Kaufman, pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, suggests:
- Find out what is happening with your baby and participate in important decision making.
- Be with your baby in the NICU as much as possible.
- Hold your baby as much as possible.
- Give your baby a massage.
- When possible, give your baby required medicines or provide other "nursing-type" functions.
- Support Mom and other family members.
- Help with your other children.
The power of touch
Massaging your infant benefits both you and your baby. According to a recent study by Dr Tiffany Field of the Miami-based Touch Research Institute, premature infants receiving massages gained weight faster and came home from the hospital earlier than nonmassaged infants.
Certified Infant Massage Instructor Heidi McWilliam of Australia notes, "Massage enhances the bonding process between the father and the newborn preemie. It can help first-time fathers feel more confident with their new role, knowing that they can do something themselves to enhance the health and development of the child."
You should not massage your infant, however, until you're taught proper technique and the timing is right. Some preemies are hypersensitive to massage and become overstimulated. Ask a nurse or member of the NICU staff to show you the correct method and tell you when it's safe to perform this on your baby.
It's the little things
The baby isn't the only person who benefits from the father's involvement. Although dads may not realize it, moms notice and appreciate their efforts and attempts at active participation.
"Having Larry involved was the most important thing to me. It showed that he cared and was really a part of what was happening," says Larry Feevey's wife Kelly. "He even slept at the hospital with me. I endured the physical pain, obviously, but he went through a lot emotionally. That is the harder of the two. At least I could take pills to make my pain better. Without Larry, I don't know how I could have made it through. He was my pillar of strength."
Involvement in your baby's care doesn't stop or start once mom and baby are home, it simply is a continuation from the NICU. Dr. Shaner offers the following tips on how dads can help at home:
- Take charge of any prescriptions for Mom and Baby.
- Make sure Mom is following the orders of her healthcare provider -- eating well, resting, et cetera.
- Ask, "What can I do to help?"
So listen up, Dad: Little acts of kindness go a long way. Moms will appreciate you doing even the simplest of tasks. Feevey recalls one of her personal favorites: "Larry would often have me e-mail the grocery list to him at work, and he would stop at the store after he was finished. That was wonderful." Feevey says, "One of the sweetest [ways] was when he'd get up overnight and sit with me while I nursed Aaron or Ry."
Fathers often worry they won't do tasks correctly or their efforts won't meet Mom's expectations. Usually, the opposite is true. If you vacuum and miss a corner, do the laundry and don't fold the towels the same way she does, or clean the bathrooms but forget to mop the floor, chances are she won't care. She's just grateful for the help.
Don't neglect yourself
Dr Shaner stresses the importance of dads taking care of themselves, too. "Get rest and nutrition yourself. It is hard to nurture someone else while running on empty." And she adds one more tip: "Learn a few lullabies?you're gonna need 'em!"