A father's role in the NICU

Your beautiful baby has arrived. But he or she was born prematurely or is sick, and needs special care. Your joy over your baby's birth may be mixed with worry and heartache. This is not how you expected fatherhood to begin.

The birth of a premature or sick baby is stressful and difficult for all family members. But it can be especially rough on you. You may worry about your baby and your partner, as well as other children at home, demands from your job and financial concerns. While each father develops his own way of coping with the birth of a premature or sick infant, this information may help make this difficult time a bit easier.

Expect strong emotions

You may feel many conflicting emotions after your baby is born. These emotions can be very intense. All of the feelings listed below are normal and most men experience some of them. As your baby gets stronger, your negative feelings may lessen.

  • Anxiety and fear over your baby's medical condition and what her future holds
  • Grief over the loss of the birth you had planned
  • Anger and resentment over the changes in your life
  • Helplessness and frustration over your inability to help your baby
  • Tension from being pulled in so many different directions as you try to support your partner, deal with financial concerns and demands at home and at work, and spend time with older children as well as with your baby
  • Overwhelming love and pride in your new baby
  • Amazement over the progress she makes and the obstacles she overcomes
  • Hope that she will have the bright future you dreamed of

Keep in mind

The birth of a sick child can put stress on the relationship between you and your partner, as well as your relationships with other family members. It's important to share your feelings with your partner through your baby's illness, so that you can support each other and come through this experience a stronger team. Remember:

  • Men and women sometimes cope differently. Some men tend to keep their feelings to themselves in order to spare their partner. A woman may feel that this behavior shows a lack of caring.
  • You and your partner may experience many of the same feelings, but not always at the same time. Accept that you may not always be on the “same page.”
  • You, your partner and your families may react differently to the same situation. Try to discuss why you feel the way you do, and listen and empathize with your partner's feelings.
  • You, your partner and your families may differ on how much information about your baby's condition to share with family and friends. Sometimes, a woman may prefer to share fewer medical details than her partner because she may feel responsible for her baby's condition. It's important to respect differences and decide what information you are both comfortable sharing.

What you can do for your baby

You play an important role in your baby's recovery. Here are some ways you can help care for your baby:

  • Spend time with your baby. Get to know the staff in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Learn about your baby's health care needs. The more time you spend with your baby, the more comfortable you will feel about his condition and care. Share any concerns about your baby's care with the staff. Trust your instincts—you are the dad.
  • Ask questions. Ask as many questions as you need to about your baby's care. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
  • Make decisions about your baby's medical care with your partner.
  • Touch and hold your baby as soon as the doctor gives you the go-ahead. Although your baby may look fragile, he won't break. Know that your baby recognizes your voice and touch.

Let others help

You can't be everywhere at once, so set your priorities and let others pick up the slack. This frees you to spend more time with those who need you most.

  • If you have other children at home, try to spend some special time with them. Reassure them that they are loved. They are worried about Mom and the baby, too.
  • Ask for and accept help. Many family members and friends want to help, but are not sure what to do. Make a list of practical things people can do to help: cook meals, clean the house, mow the lawn, go grocery shopping, take children to school and walk the dog.
  • Ask a trusted family member or friend to pass on to other family members and friends the information you and your partner have agreed to share about your baby's medical condition and progress.
  • Balance the areas of your life. When you return to work, try to limit your work hours so that you can spend time with your baby, partner and other children. Let your employer know about your baby's condition, in case you need to leave work unexpectedly or are sometimes unable to accomplish all that you would like. This can take some pressure off of you.
  • Maintain your sense of humor. Whenever possible, try to joke about the little things. Humor can be healing, and can make a difficult situation better for everyone.

Support your partner

New moms of premature or sick babies have some special concerns. Your partner may need some extra support and understanding in the early days after your baby is born. Here's how you can help:

  • In the early days, your partner may be too tired, uncomfortable or sad to spend much time in the NICU. Or your baby may have been transported to a different hospital where she can receive the best care. Tell your partner everything about her baby. Show your partner pictures of your baby and share all the day-to-day details of your baby's care.
  • Be patient. Mom's fears, pain, fatigue and hormonal changes can make her more emotional and irritable than usual.
  • Reassure her. Many mothers of premature or sick babies feel responsible and guilty for their baby's condition. Listen and empathize with her feelings, but reassure her that nothing she did caused her baby's condition.
  • Help with the demands of pumping milk. If your partner chooses to pump her milk, support her in any way you can. Help get bottles ready, offer to put milk in the freezer and deliver it to the hospital, when necessary. Breast milk is the ideal food for all babies, and may have special health benefits for premature and sick babies.
  • Encourage her to take care of herself. In her concern over the baby, she may not get enough rest or eat right.
  • Praise her for spending time with the baby, pumping milk and everything she does. Your partner will appreciate hearing that she's a great mom.

Take care of yourself

Nobody expects you to be superman. In order to remain strong and support your family, be sure to take care of yourself.

  • Get enough sleep and eat healthy foods.
  • Take a break. Though your time is limited, try to fit in activities that help you relieve stress, such as exercise, sports, hobbies, going to the movies or playing with your other children. You will be better able to cope and help your family if you give yourself a break once in a while.
  • Find support. Consider attending a NICU parent support group. You may find it helpful to talk with other dads with babies in the NICU. No one understands what you are going through better than other dads who have been there.

Though you may not know it, you are already playing an important role in your baby's life. You are a member of the NICU team that is working to make your baby stronger. You provide your baby with comfort and support, and celebrate his victories, as only his dad can do. Being a NICU dad can be difficult, especially if your baby is very sick. You should take pride in all the things you do to help your baby and your partner, and realize that you are making a difference.

See also: Share your story

August 2009

Most common questions

Is it OK to hold my baby in the NICU?

It depends on your baby's health overall. Some newborn intensive care units (NICUs) will encourage you to hold your baby from birth onward. Other NICUs will want you to wait until your baby's health is stable. Ask your NICU staff about its policy on kangaroo care (holding your baby on your bare chest). Kangaroo care has benefits for both you and your baby. The skin-to-skin contact is a precious way to be close to your baby. You may be afraid you'll hurt him by holding him. But you won't. Your baby knows your scent, touch and the rhythms of your speech and breathing, and he’ll enjoy feeling that closeness with you.

My baby was born full term. Why is she in the NICU?

Not all newborn intensive care unit (NICU) babies are born premature. Some babies, even those born full term, may need special care. Your baby may need to spend some time in the NICU if she had a difficult delivery, has breathing problems, has infections or has birth defects.

Most babies leave the NICU just fine. Others may need more special care once they're home.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).