Love at first sight is hard when you have a NICU baby

A lot of people talk about falling in love with your baby right away, they talk about how the moment bub was put on their chest their heart filled with joy and it was an instant connection. Instagram is filled with beautiful soft glowly post birth pictures of mums and dads bare chested gazingly lovingly at their precious newborn curled comfortably on their chest. However not all families get to experience that. When your baby is born premature or in medical distress and requiring NICU its often a very different experience. For many families I have worked with the theme is they were not at all prepared for what would happen if they had a premature birth.

I don’t blame them, unless you have medical complications early in the pregnancy or have a close friend or family member who experienced premature birth most women don’t spend their pregnancy anticipating that their baby will come early. At your antentatal appointents the focus is on monitoring your health, how to know you are in labour, your birth plan. At your baby shower or when going shopping you are usually given clothes in size 0000 because that is the size a newborn baby ‘will be’. Very little time is spent explaining what would happen if you had a premature baby. Even when a woman goes into early labour little information is provided to them about what to expect once bub is born. 

What that often means is that parents aren’t prepared for what happens next once their baby is born and requires extra medical assistance. A mother anticipates her baby will be placed on her chest for skin to skin snuggles. A mother does not anticipate that her baby will be taken right away to the corner of the room to be ‘worked on’ by the paediatrician or wheeled straight down to NICU for stabilisation. Its hard being left in the room alone without your baby, especially if the labour and birth was traumatic. Many women that I see report a lot of confusion post birth, they are left wondering where is their baby, is their baby OK, when will they get to see them again? When they do finally get to go down to NICU they often aren’t prepared to see their baby in a humidicrib with wires attached and monitors beeping loudly.  

It’s an experience that is hard to put in words when you first see your baby in NICU, when you wait nervously for the nurse to hand your bub too you and you are so scared of knocking a wire or breaking this precious tiny infant. The doctors, nurses and midwives are all so used to their NICU bubble sometimes information gets shared in a blunt way, sometimes things don’t get explained and most of the time the parents are left feeling confused, out of their depth and scared for what’s going to happen next. It’s a strange place to be and there’s a lot of conflicting emotions arising all at once. This blend of grateful that your baby is alive and not ‘as sick’ as another one on the ward and at the same time really sad or angry that you don’t get to have the ‘normal’ experience of having your baby on the ward or home with you.

I work with women who experience deep guilt or shame that they haven’t bonded ‘properly’ with their NICU baby. Who feel that they are a terrible awful person because they didn’t feel love for them right away. From a psychological perspective it makes perfect sense that it was hard to bond and hard to feel love right away. It feels scary to love someone that might not come home with you. Its incredibly tough having to say goodbye at the end of each day to go home. There is nothing wrong with you, your heart and your mind are trying to keep you safe by not loving your baby right away. It takes time to build that relationship and that is easier to do when you are home, away from the nurses telling you that you’ve changed the nappy wrong or that bub is too tired for a suck feed so they will tube them instead. It takes even longer to build that bond if your birth and NICU were traumatic experiences for you.

That is why seeing a psychologist can be valuable. Having a safe space to explore, process and make sense of your experience and heal from your trauma is important to the developing relationship with your baby.

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