Adjusting to your new reality after premature birth
Staying strong for your premature baby is all about balancing her needs with yours.
It's important to be realistic: life with a new baby is unlikely to feel the same as life before children. While your baby is in hospital, your daily routine may feel like a treadmill of hospital visits, expressing milk and sleeping. Social activities, hobbies and interests fall by the wayside for a while. You will feel unbelievably tired, and if your baby has health problems you will inevitably feel extremely distressed.
There are still little things you can do to help. You won't be able to change the fact that this is a challenging time, but if you take care of your basic needs, you will find it a little easier to cope.
You can expect to feel grief and anger – these are the feelings we experience when real life doesn’t live up to the future we expected.
Premature birth is a traumatic experience
Having a premature baby is a huge adjustment and it may take you a long time – and possibly professional help – to accept what has happened.
When a baby is born prematurely, parents often feel shocked, confused, abandoned, powerless or guilty. Some feel grief because of what they fear the future may hold, and it is common to try to place blame for the situation on others. Emotional reactions are not always predictable.
Delayed reaction to premature birth
Some parents feel fine initially, and then suddenly feel overwhelming grief and distress several days or weeks later. Others find that a traumatic birth experience may stay with them for months or even years, and may need professional help to move on.
Experiencing grief after giving birth prematurely
It takes time for the mind to catch up with events and accept them. When you do come to accept something, this does not mean that it won’t cause pain any more, but you may feel calmer and able to think about other things too. Many parents experience feelings of loss and grief when their baby is born prematurely, for all sorts of reasons – for example:
- loss of an experience, such as having the type of birth you had planned, breastfeeding or close physical contact with your baby
- if your baby is in the baby unit, the loss of a comfortable, homely environment in which to care for her, and the loss of privacy and a sense of control
- a loss of shared experience with other mums or friends who can’t identify with your experiences, or when reading books, websites or email updates that don’t relate to your situation
- the loss of aspects of your earlier life, such as your career, social life, a full night’s sleep or simply a carefree existence without constant worries about your baby
- the sense of lost opportunity if your baby develops long-term health problems or disability
- a sense of unfairness - why has this happened to you and not others
- if your baby does not survive – although this is rare, very sadly a small number of premature babies do not make it.
Talking about feelings of grief
If you are experiencing grief and loss, it may help you simply to recognise and name those feelings. Talking them through with your partner or a close friend or relative might help. If the feelings become overwhelming, you might benefit from professional support.
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Some tips from mums who've been through a similar situation
Every parent with a premature baby will face different challenges, depending on their circumstances. You may already be able to think of some ways that you can help yourself feel better if you’re going through a rough patch. Here are some ideas from mothers of premature babies:
- Spend one-to-one time with your partner or a good friend – for example, by setting aside a special evening every week or two.
- Keep in regular contact with close friends or family – whether by phone, by email or meeting up.
- Do some exercise, such as walking, swimming or doing a gym class or yoga.
- Use relaxation techniques such as meditation.
- Go out with your friends for dinner, or for a coffee and a wander round the shops
- Keep up a hobby that has nothing to do with parenting, such as a book club.
- If you have other children, spend a set period of one-to-one time with them every week.
- Listen to your favourite music, eat your favourite food or watch your favourite movies.
- Pamper yourself with a haircut or massage.
- Take the opportunity to lie down whenever your baby rests. If you can’t sleep, use the quiet time to read, listen to music or have a relaxing bath.
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Staying physically healthy puts you in a better position for the difficult journey ahead.
Eat a healthy balanced diet
Good nutrition is important, especially if you're breastfeeding. If possible, enlist the help of family and friends to ensure you have a healthy balanced diet. Remember to drink plenty of fluids as well: hospital environments can be dehydrating.
Lack of sleep has a huge effect on the well-being of parents with newborn babies. If you are staying in hospital overnight, sleeping conditions are not always comfortable and there may be frequent disturbances. At home, your sleep will also be disturbed if you are expressing milk for your baby. During the early months you will probably be waking several times at night.
Disturbed sleep doesn't just cause tiredness. It can affect your mood and make you irritable, leading to friction in your relationships. It can affect your judgement and it can affect your memory, which can lead to small mistakes such as missed appointments or losing keys.
The usual advice is to try to nap wherever possible. Some people find sleeping during the day easier than others, but even if you can’t actually sleep during the day, take the opportunity to have a rest.
Get enough exercise
This is difficult when you’re exhausted, stressed and unable to follow your normal routine, but it is important. Even if your baby’s still in hospital, try to get out for a short walk whenever possible. The fresh air and change of scene will do you good.
Take time out from being a parent to recharge
Whether your baby is in hospital or back at home, you need some time for yourself. This may involve a long bubble bath, relaxing with a magazine, a stroll around the shops or a chance to talk, either over a glass of wine with your partner or with a friend. Don’t feel guilty about doing something that doesn't involve your baby.
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When will I feel normal again?
How quickly you find your feet will depend on a whole range of factors, including:
- your experiences during pregnancy, delivery and your baby’s early life
- your state of health, and that of your baby
- how you tend to respond to stress and change
- your personal identity
- how much support you have from your partner, friends, family and health professionals. (Find out more about support at home from the community healthcare team.)
- what other pressures you are facing, including work, children and other caring responsibilities
- other factors, such as your baby’s sleeping patterns.
Because of the interplay between all these factors, every parent will have different levels of resilience, and may respond to the same situation in a very different way. So, what one person considers a manageable challenge will be another person’s idea of a crisis. Throughout this period it is important not to have a preconceived idea of how you should be feeling at any given time.
Even if you feel you are coping, it is worth keeping an eye out for changes in how you are feeling, so that if things start to become unmanageable you can seek advice or support sooner rather than later.
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Published April 2012, next review April 2015
Aagard, Hall (2008) cited in Boxwell G (2010) Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing, United Kingdom, Routledge, p45