Much ado is given to “bonding with babies,” especially birth bonding. Parents are encouraged to bond to their babies at birth, if not before. For many parents, bonding comes easily and naturally. For others, it is a harder process. For preemie parents, it can seem like climbing Mount Everest – impossible and exhausting.
Preemies are not miniature full term babies, and the earlier a baby is born, the harder it might be to bond with them. Parents of full term babies are encouraged to hold their children skin-to-skin immediately after birth, breastfeed on demand, baby wear, and respond to their baby’s cry. But how do you bond with a baby who was whisked away for life-saving care immediately after birth, is too fragile to be touched, and cannot breastfeed? Here are ten ideas that can help you bond with your NICU baby.
1. Pump your milk: Providing breastmilk for your child is the one thing you can do for your baby that no one else can. Even if you are unable to provide all of her meals, a little milk can do wonders for a tiny, immature gut.
2. Bond with his caregivers: Natalie, the mother of a 25 week baby, said, “Although you can’t do a lot with a 25 weeker, it’s nice to know how your baby is used to being handled by the nurses and doctors. This way, when you DO take over care, you can maintain consistency for your baby and help him/her to feel safe. In addition, knowing what was going on – in detail – helped me feel like I was getting to know (my daughter’s) personality even though I couldn’t interact with her the way normal mothers can. Like how much she liked to try to extubate herself, and how much she hated those wipe-down baths.”
3. Talk to your baby: If you feel silly talking to a baby, read a book. It doesn’t have to be a children’s book – any one will do! If you can’t go to the hospital as often as you want, record your voice talking and singing to your baby. The staff can play it when you aren’t there.
4. Hold your baby: Hold your baby as much as is possible, but know that the earlier a baby is born, the more likely they are to be unable to tolerate touch. Touch can be painful or upsetting to the baby, and they show this by dropping their heart rate and oxygen levels. It’s very hard, but those are your baby’s cues that, right now, he wants to be left alone. Just as you would respect a term baby’s cues to be left alone to sleep, you need to respect your preemie’s cues.
5. Decorate his room: Bring in pictures from home – your older children, your pets, the grandparents. Bring in special stuffed animals and colorful blankets to cover the incubator. Make this “new home” as homey as possible.
6. Leave your scent: You, your partner and even baby’s siblings can sleep with some soft cloth items and leave them for your baby. “Tag” blankets, animal blankets, large burp cloths and receiving blankets work especially well. I would often pump with a burp cloth under my breasts so any milk that dripped would catch on the cloth. When the time came to wash the cloth, I would hold it close to smell my baby as I pumped. His scent would facilitate a letdown.
7. Dress your baby: As soon as the staff gives you permission, bring in her clothes. Don’t worry if they don’t fit perfectly.
8. Take pictures: Put together a little “brag book” for yourself. You have as much right as any parent to show off your new one!
9. Celebrate your baby: Many faiths have an initiation for infants, such as a baptism or dedication. If you wish, have your child baptized or receive a blessing. If you don’t feel like you can celebrate his birth, celebrate another first, like the first bath or the first time he comes off the vent. A celebration can be anything from a special dinner for the parents to a small toast with juice or a simple high-five with the staff.
10. Don’t force yourself: For most parents, bonding will happen. Sometimes it happens in the hospital; for others, it happens at home, away from the stress and daily grind of the NICU. It’s misleading, I think, to imply that bonding is always a strong, intense, “bolt of lightning” moment. That happens to some but for many other parents, it is a slow, gradual process.
I was a very lucky and atypical NICU mother. Puddin’Pie was born at 35 weeks and was able to breathe at birth. I was able to hold him for a short amount of time before he had to go to the nursery for monitoring and, later, a Level III NICU. Although we had that short time together, something most NICU moms do not have, I still had trouble considering him “mine.” I loved him deeply but I felt like I had work to bond with him, something that came easily with my other children. At times, I wondered if it would ever happen.
Today, he is 22 months old and very much bonded with his family. Although we were unable to bond in the typical way, it happened and he is the happy, well adjusted toddler I hoped for, in spite of his rough beginning.
Laura is the mother to a herd of four young children, wife to her Engineer Husband and owner of a pesky dog. Her 35 week preemie is so well bonded to her husband, they sometimes feel he is super-glued to Daddy’s leg.