The Emotional Components of Bonding With Preemies

Welcome to the March 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting With Special Needs

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how we parent despite and because of challenges thrown our way. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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Helping soothe our baby during medical procedures reminded us that we're the parents!

Having a premature baby comes as a surprise to many parents. Some parents are aware early in pregnancy of their likelihood of having a preemie due to various complications, medical conditions, or the discovery of having multiples, but for many others, the early birth of their baby is a surprise.

Even when a premature baby is completely healthy, many emotions come to the surface that perhaps would not have been there had the baby been born closer to his or her expected time of delivery. Besides the feeling of surprise, emotions including anger, shock, disappointment, fear, and worry are also common for parents of preemies to feel.1 Not discounting the happiness of getting to meet one’s baby for the first time, parents of preemies experience a range of emotions that contribute to how the bonding process begins with the new little life that has been born.

The various feelings felt by parents of premature babies contribute to the bonding process. The pain of life in the NICU is very real. Having to ask permission to hold or feed your baby can be taxing, not to mention the feeling of watching other mothers leave the hospital with their new bundles of joy in their arms. I remember seeing other new parents, giddy upon their discharge, strapping their babies into their car seats for the first time and heading home as a family. Seeing them as I walked in and out of the hospital doors alone, while my baby laid in his plastic bassinet with tubes and wires monitoring his every breath and heartbeat, consumed me with feelings of guilt, anger, jealousy, and sadness. Add to that the mess of postpartum hormones, and it’s only natural that bonding with a preemie may come as a challenge. But Dr. Robert Sears advises that bonding with your child is a process.2 The chaos of NICU life has the potential to rob parents of the joy of new a baby, but with the right focus and deliberate choices, we can enjoy bonding with our preemies.

Adopting the “this is my baby” attitude is one of the best ways to forge ahead with the bonding process. In my experience, I found that each time I remembered, “Hey, this is MY baby!” I felt relief. I didn’t have to tiptoe around the doctors and nurses and let them do whatever they pleased with my baby. Of course, maintaining a level of respect and kindness was important too, but realizing I didn’t have to just sit there with a hands-off approach was empowering. I asked questions when I didn’t understand something that was going on, I imposed my parenting beliefs when it was medically safe, I stood strong with my intent to breastfeed and hold my baby as much as possible, and all of those things really helped. Bonding was intentional for me, and once I realized I didn’t have to feel hesitant or sheepish around the neonatologist or nervously ask for permission from nurses to hold or feed my baby, our bond grew even deeper. (I do want to note that the NICU staff where we were was phenomenal—no one bossed me around or was rude to me.) Once I understood that this was my baby, I felt empowered and motherly, which only promoted the natural nurturing of my little baby.

Kangaroo Care is a great way to get the bonding going!

It is completely normal for certain emotions like anger, resentment, and guilt to get in the way of moms feeling like we can or even want to bond with our premature babies. However, trusting that the bonding and love will come, and knowing that the more time we spend with our babies with bring us closer to that point, can help us to get over the hump and into the swing of things.

Having other children at home, balancing responsibilities between home life and NICU life, all while wondering if your preemie is okay and questioning why he or she came early can all stifle our natural desire to bond with our new babies. Remaining by your baby’s side when possible is a sure way to work toward a healthy bonding relationship. Don’t worry about the times you can’t be there or when other responsibilities seem to be too overwhelming to ignore. Your baby knows you and knows you love him or her.

Focus on what you can do, and do it. Touch your baby in ways that are developmentally and medically safe, sing and talk to your baby (being aware of their stimulation tolerances), feed your baby your milk when possible (there are many ways to do this!), and soon you will find you and your baby are bonding as any normal, healthy mother-baby pair would.

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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon March 13 with all the carnival links.)

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Adrienne is a first time mom to her mellow sweetie-pie, Burkley. Carrying her natural lifestyle over into her role of mother was a common-sense transition for this former elementary school teacher turned crunchy-mama. Research is her passion and her friends and family know that she is almost always ready with a stash of resources bookmarked to answer any of their natural parenting questions. While she admits to being on the computer more than she should be, she has been happily adjusting to her new life as a stay-at-home mom after moving back home to the Quad Cities (along the Mississippi River) from Chicago, by spending time with her family and newly found mom-friends. She is currently saving up money to become a certified postpartum doula. You can find Adrienne at Mommying My Way.

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Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products and/or information are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease. Readers are advised to do their own research and make decisions in partnership with their healthcare provider. If you are pregnant, are nursing, have a medical condition, or are taking any medication, please consult your physician. Nothing you read here should be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis, or courses of treatment.

  1. Linden, D.W., Parolit, E.T., & Doron, M.W. (2000). Preemies. Pocket Books, New York.
  2. Sears, W., Sears, R., Sears, J., & Sears, M., The Premature Baby Book

13 Responses to The Emotional Components of Bonding With Preemies

  1. Amy @ Anktangle  

    This is a great list of tips, and I’ll definitely keep it in mind for the future. I went into premature labor with my son, but (thankfully) it was able to be stopped with medications. I remember having lots of fear in the moment about what his early life would be like if he was born sooner than we expected. I’m still grateful that it didn’t play out that way, but I don’t have this fear anymore, because I know it would be OK and that we could all handle it. Thanks for this great post!

  2. Amy  

    What a lovely list of tips – having parenting in the NICU for Abbey’s first month (intestinal surgery, not prematurity), I can remember these emotions well. Great post!

    • Adrienne

      Since writing this, I’ve known three full-term babies who’ve spent time in the NICU. These tips apply to any baby in a special circumstance, not just with preemies!

  3. Dionna  

    Such awesome advice, Adrienne! I remember that feeling of guilt, resentment, and helplessness from having to ask *permission* to do anything with Kieran. I wish I’d had someone to take me by the hand and tell me some of these things!

  4. Julie Keon

    As a prenatal educator and doula,this is a wonderful post for expectant parents and new parents who find themselves in the NICU with their premature baby or any baby for that matter. Well done!
    Julie from http://www.whatiwouldtellyou.com

  5. Hannah  

    I too felt like I was intruding every time I visited the NICU – especially if they were doing a procedure on Hannabert. Great post on how to stay involved.

  6. Our Muddy Boots  

    Though I did not have a preemie, I can understand why remembering that “this is MY baby” could change things.

    Parents of full term babies often do not feel comfortable accepting this until their children are older… or even ever.

    I cannot imagine how trying the time in a NICU is with your baby, and I suspect that the words you wrote today will help another family to remember this more quickly.

    I know these are words I will keep in my mind permanently and have readily available for anyone who might need them.

    Thank you.

  7. Melissa Vose  

    This is a very important post! I appreciate that you remain respectful of necessary medical interventions and hospital staff, yet encourage NICU parents to lay claim to their baby. NICU environments have a long way to go, but you did brilliantly. I love your emphasis on (safe/developmentally appropriate) touch, and on breastmilk feeds. Wonderful, thank you for writing this! I will bookmark it for any friends I have who may encounter the NICU with a preemie. =)

  8. Lauren  

    Wow, that would be so incredibly hard. I know I’d feel the way you describe, tiptoeing around the doctors and nurses and feeling the need to ask permission to parent my child. I’m so glad you were able to get beyond that, and I think that’s incredible advice, to be bold and confident as a parent, to any family enduring a NICU stay. I also hadn’t thought of how it would be to go into the same area of the hospital where so many parents are happily leaving with their healthy newborns. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

  9. Rachael  

    This post is such a great resource, Adrienne. I especially love the idea that bonding is a process — to be cultivated at any and all stages.

  10. Sylvia@MaMammalia

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I have to admit, the feelings that arise just seeing these photos are still too raw that I couldn’t really read this post (sorry). But I’m glad that others will and I admire your strength in writing it!

    As for attachment…I was once asked if my son’s premature birth interfered with our bonding and I responded by saying that in many ways it’s brought us closer. We’ve had to try extra hard and be conscious of our connection. The result has been a very deep attachment, two years in the making :)

    • Adrienne

      I completely understand you not being able to read this (yet)! I would be the same way. Even being able to look back at my son’s pictures from the NICU took a lot of time. Thanks for taking the time to comment anyway! And good for you and your son and your extra-strong bond. It’s amazing what hardships can do to strengthen our relationships.

  11. Elena

    Great advice. I remember the nurses having pet names for MY baby, and while it was reassuring in that it was evidence that they did care about her, it also made me feel like she was *theirs*.

    I remember so many times that they would essentially discourage/forbid me from being around her, like when I walked in and saw that she had somehow pulled the IV out of her foot and there was blood everywhere. I very calmly let a nurse know, and she whisked me away as though I couldn’t handle it. There was always a very clear understanding of *who* exactly was in charge, and it wasn’t me.

    I think I could have handled it a lot better if it hadn’t been my first.

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