Preemie Dads Share Lessons They Learned in the NICU

written by EMILY SHEPARD
nicu dads"
nicu dads
Brian holds his newborn daughter in the NICU. Source: Kathy Sisson
Brian holds his newborn daughter in the NICU. Source: Kathy Sisson

Adam, Brian, and Max know what it feels like to walk out of the hospital while their baby stays behind in the hospital. From their time as a NICU dad, they know how it feels to be the rock for their partners while feeling helpless at the bedside of their tiny baby. In honor of Prematurity Awareness Month in November, we spoke to each of these dedicated dads about their experiences in the NICU to provide encouragement to other preemie dads.

Adam’s son was born at 25 weeks old and spent 135 days in the NICU; he’s now 5 years old and doing well. “At one point we almost lost our son. We even had him baptized at the hospital because we were told it was time to say goodbye to him. After we had him baptized he started to come around,” Adam said. 

Brian’s daughter was born at 34 weeks old and spent 18 days in the NICU; she’s now a nature-loving 11-year-old. “You’re so focused on the end—getting them home—but you can really only go day-by-day in the NICU. You have to celebrate the small victories along the way,” Brian said. 

Max’s son was born at 34 weeks old and spent 17 days in the NICU; he’s now a healthy 1-year-old. “By far the hardest part of my son being in the NICU was leaving him there at night. I knew he was safe and the staff was checking on him 24/7, but it was really sad driving away each night and leaving our brand-new baby,” Max said. 

Here is what else these NICU alums would share with other preemie dads.

Advice for a NICU Dad

Take time off work 

It’s a juggling act for parents to care for their preemie baby and manage work and other responsibilities. Oftentimes, moms take their leave while dads continue to work, take care of other children, and do household tasks. However, these three dads all recommended to take time off work, if possible, and be actively involved in the happenings at the NICU. This will be a time in your life you always look back on and reflect, so be as engaged and physically present as you can be. 

“In the beginning, I took some paternity leave because there were so many unknowns, so we both took time off because we didn’t know if we would get much time with our son or the prognosis,” said Adam. Once his son’s condition was more stable, Adam said he split his time more between work and the NICU. 

Brian took a few days off work when his daughter was born, and then went to the NICU every morning on his way to work. “I went back to work a few days after our daughter was born so I could save my paternity leave for when she was home. The hospital was on my way to work, so I’d stop by in the morning so my wife could rest and not feel like she had to get there first thing,” Brian said. 

Max’s work schedule allowed some flexibility, so he spent as much time as he could in the NICU, often working alongside his baby if he could. He hoped to reserve days off for when his son was discharged. “I didn’t technically take time off until he was home,” he said. “If I could have done it differently I think I would have taken time off while he was there and spent more time with him while he was in the NICU.”

Listen to your partner  

In addition to prioritizing connection with your baby in the NICU, prioritizing support and connection with your partner is also important. Make eye contact, hold her hand, hug her, wash the breast pump parts without asking, remind her that she’s doing a great job, and listen whenever she needs to vent. Adam and his wife made it a routine to meet in the cafeteria at the hospital and take a few minutes to talk through all their emotions. 

“Keep an honest and open dialogue with your partner, in a judgment-free zone. One of the things my wife and I did was go to the cafeteria and sit down and take turns communicating doubts and all the things my wife was scared about, the realities of what could happen. We are all so ingrained with staying positive, but it’s hard to do that sometimes. Just being able to listen, not judge, and provide that opportunity for her to communicate her feelings really helped. It’s hard for guys to do that sometimes, but it’s good for our partners to hear that we are feeling the same way and they feel better knowing that we are also struggling.” 

nicu dads
Adam and his son practice skin-to-skin contact in the NICU. Source: Adam Wood

Max tried to give his wife time to sleep, he cared for their oldest son when she was in the NICU, and when she needed a break from the hospital, he stayed at the NICU and kept his wife updated on their son’s condition. He often drove back and forth to the NICU three times a day, while managing work and his other dad duties. 

“I tried to make my wife feel at ease and not overwhelmed by trying to take care of everything else outside of the NICU,” Max said. “It was a lot of juggling being a parent to children in different places, and my wife wanted to be at the NICU as much as humanly possible, so I tried to take as much pressure off her as I could.”

Brian also made it a priority to be at the NICU every day and made sure his wife slept. She also struggled with pumping, but he knew every drop of breast milk was precious. “I drove less than an ounce of breastmilk my wife had pumped overnight to get to the hospital by 6 a.m. so we could make the morning feeding while my wife rested at home.”

Be actively involved and ask questions 

It’s crucial for dads to be actively involved in the happenings in the NICU. Become well acquainted with the nurses, ask questions about the medical procedures, and advocate for your baby. 

“There are so many things out of our control. We want to make things right and protect our kids and our wives. We can’t take away the pain and we can’t hook ourselves up to the machines, but we can hold them, sing to them, read to them, and you can be involved in their care. Be there when the doctors come around. Be an advocate, become close to the nurses, be able to articulate what your feelings are. At the end of the day, you are the expert on your child. While you aren’t the medical expert, you are there every day and you see them and you’re with your child. You know what is normal for your child. You’ve watched their monitors and you’ve gotten to know what makes them unique early,” Adam said.

“The NICU gave us time to practice being parents,” said Brian. “I learned how to feed her, bathe her, and change her diaper, all with the help of professionals nearby.”

One of Max’s favorite memories in the NICU was the first time he bottle-fed his son. “Getting the chance to bottle feed my son when he was so new was a delicate process. I had to count the number of times he swallowed because he was so little and not strong enough to do that for very long. It was a very hands-on experience and I felt very paternal doing that,” Max said. 

Leverage your strengths 

The NICU will challenge you in unimaginable ways. There is no better time to leverage your strengths and bring your unique abilities to the table. 

“I took lead in a lot of the medical side of it because it was something that I could do well. A lot of dads are very analytical. We all have our strengths and we have to figure out how to leverage them to make the situation more manageable. Once you start to see the impacts of your involvement you start to feel more recharged,” Adam said. “But when you don’t see the impact your time in NICU can feel like an eternity.” 

Adam learned about all the machines, the data, and how to read the monitors. Then, he updated his wife regularly about the medical side of their son’s condition and about conversations he had with the nurses or doctors. This helped his wife focus on being with their baby and connecting with him, rather than the overwhelming amount of information to remember. 

Adam recommends considering your strengths and how you can be the most useful to your partner and your baby during this challenging experience. 

Hold your baby as much as you can 

Many parents, dads in particular, might feel intimidated by the fragile state of their baby and by all the machines in the NICU, making them more hesitant to hold their babies. 

“It was a bit overwhelming at first, I knew he was OK, but he was still on all sorts of monitors, heart monitors, IV, blood oxygen monitor, and it was intimidating. At first, it made me a bit apprehensive because I was worried I would disconnect something; I didn’t want to hold him because I didn’t want to hurt him or tangle all the cords,” Max said. 

“Don’t be hesitant to hold your baby if you can; I was really intimidated at first with all the machines and tubes, but once I got over that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Remember that they are being monitored 24/7, so if something is disconnected the nurse will be there immediately to fix it. If I was in that situation again I wouldn’t hesitate to hold him right away.”  

Adam echoed Max’s advice for dads to hold their babies as much as they can while in the NICU. If your baby’s condition doesn’t allow you to hold your baby, find other ways to connect. 

“Reach out and hold your baby’s hand or touch his body. Your impact, your scent, your touch, all of those things have a positive impact. Find any way you can connect. It’s meaningful to the baby’s development more than anything. I think it’s important that parents can find, dads in particular, any way to interact,” Adam said.

nicu dads
Max and his son practice skin-to-skin contact. Source: Quincey Carroll

Practice skin-to-skin contact 

Skin-to-skin contact is a well-known practice in the NICU due to its developmental benefits for preemie babies, and one of the most crucial ways to connect. And it’s not just moms who can practice skin-to-skin. Nurses can also help a NICU dad get situated for skin-to-skin with their preemie baby.

“We were able to do skin-to-skin contact about a week after he was born. It can be nerve-wracking for parents because it’s not normal the way you’re doing it. It’s not what you envision in your head: you think it’s more peaceful and relaxing. Parents have to control their emotions because babies can sense your emotions. The first time I was really tense and nervous and my son could feel that,” Adam said. “Skin-to-skin is the most important thing you can do because it has such a lasting impact on the development. Things are just better when babies are on their parents’ chest because you can truly see and feel the impact.”

Skin-to-skin contact improves feeding success, increases weight gain, regulates temperature and blood sugar, and stabilizes heart and breathing rates. Research also shows that increased frequency of skin-to-skin contact can reduce the number of days that babies are on oxygen and result in an earlier discharge from the NICU. “Every time I held him we would do some skin-to-skin time and he always fell asleep on me,” Max said. He mentioned Bonsie Skin to Skin Babywear made it easier to work around all the attachments without removing any of his baby son’s clothing for skin-to-skin.

Source: Canva

Read to your baby 

Reading to your baby in the NICU is a great way to bond. Babies are comforted by the sound of your voice, a voice they recognize and trust. Adam read to his son every day, knowing that it was a powerful way to help his baby’s development. 

“Reading is one of the easiest and best things to do. I could read the chart, or a book, or anything in the room and my voice would comfort him. Now one of my son’s favorite things to do is read. He sleeps with books and he’s doing things far beyond his years as a result.”

Adam’s motivation to read to his son and the lack of stories about the NICU inspired him to write his first book, Our Preemie Adventure, as a way to educate parents about premature babies and the NICU, while still adding positivity.

“A lot of what we use in our books is humor as a way to laugh and look back at the positives [from the NICU], which is hard, and also to show children that their experience isn’t so scary. Those days in the NICU should be celebrated.”

Prioritize your own well-being 

There can be so much guilt associated with a NICU stay. If a parent gets a good night’s sleep, has a good meal, or does something that he or she enjoys, oftentimes they will feel guilty because they think they should have been at the NICU. However, it’s tough to be a good parent to your children if you’re depleted of all your energy and strength. 

“Every moment out of the NICU that isn’t life or death makes parents feel guilty. They think they are a bad parent if they go out and get a good dinner. But the NICU wipes you out physically in a way that you can’t put into words and we have to find ways to recharge ourselves,” said Adam. 

Grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend, taking a much-needed nap, listening to an uplifting podcast, or doing something fun with family outside of the NICU are all ways to recharge. Remember that this time to prioritize your own well-being is also good for your baby because they feel your emotions and stress.

Think big picture

When you’re in the NICU, it can be difficult to think long-term and plan for a future that could be different from what you envisioned. The NICU will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression like it did for Max, Brian, and Adam. 

“It made me appreciate all of the little moments more. Having a child in the NICU is so hard as a parent because you kind of feel helpless, so when you finally get home you just cherish everything so much more,” Max said.

The 135 days that Adam’s son spent in the NICU felt like a rollercoaster, full of triumphs and challenges. 

“Everything that you’re going through at the moment feels like it’s going to last forever, but eventually you will see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Adam said. “When my son came home, all of the things he did seemed so much more amplified: his first bottle, his first steps, his first words. There is so much more understanding of how far he’s come and that’s impacted our own lives. We appreciate our health, our lives, our jobs, and our time spent with him; it’s all so much more meaningful. There are times I sit and look at him in complete amazement. I had the opportunity to watch God’s work up close. You were never meant to see a baby at 25 weeks, but it’s truly amazing to be able to say that I witnessed a miracle,” Adam said. 

Adam has channeled his life-changing experience as a NICU dad into writing books and advocating for parents of preemie babies. 

“There’s an opportunity in all you do to make the situation meaningful, and when you start to see how you can impact others, your life becomes so much more meaningful. Now I realize that if I hadn’t gone through that I wouldn’t be able to advocate the way I do now,” Adam said. “It’s incredible to see my son and other children overcome the odds. They are truly miracles.” 

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