WEDNESDAY, JUNE 17 2020
It’s Men’s Health Week (June 15-21), an important time to shine light on all areas affecting men’s well-being. For fathers of premature or sick newborns, the journey can be just as traumatic, isolating, and stressful as it is for mothers. There is a great importance in sharing the less spoken about dad’s perspective of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) or Special Care Nursery (SCN) journey and beyond.
NICU Dad, Matt Bialkowski is helping to bridge that gap with his podcast Dads of the NICU. A platform to provide advice and guidance to new Dads with babies in the NICU or SCN through the sharing of stories and experiences. Nick shares how his NICU journey started:
“My wife and I were destined for IVF after failing to fall pregnant for well over a year. Just before we were about to commence the first round, we fell pregnant! But as it would play out, our special little girl wanted to make up for all of that lost time! Our daughter arrived at 25+5 weeks, measuring 33cm and weighing 766g (1 pound 11 ounces). She was on life support in the NICU for the first 6 days. The NICU felt so foreign to me, and I was quite scared to be in there. I was so worried that my daughter would not survive, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. My wife and I were certainly not expecting to be in the NICU, let alone at 25 weeks gestation! But this was our path now, and we had to walk it together.
The first few days in the NICU are absolutely critical for your baby, and also for you. The first few days will seem like they go on forever and you will struggle to process everything that is happening. You will feel like your whole world has stopped, and all your attention is now purely focused on your new little addition. There are so many things to get your head around, now you're a NICU Dad, you will feel so confused, scared, helpless, sad and anxious. All of these feelings and emotions are completely normal, as the situation you now find yourself in is not 'normal'. It is for this reason I want to share some important advice I hope will help guide new NICU dads.
1) Be prepared to feel sad and scared
I thought that having a baby was going to be a magical experience like what you see in the movies. The outcome of it all was that I was so scared and sad for so long. Scared that things would go bad or take a turn for the worst. Sad that we didn’t get our planned birth and sad that I felt so scared! Even if I knew how scared and sad I would feel before going in there, there probably wasn’t much I could have done to prepare myself – other than to know to expect those feelings, and not to get too worried that I was in fact feeling those emotions.
2) Going home without your baby
You will likely need to go home alone or home without your baby for an amount of time. I never knew these feelings would affect me so much during our 98 days in the NICU. Some days I just felt so bloody guilty walking away from my daughter's isolate. The best part of every day was seeing her for the first time that day and seeing if there had been any changes over night. The worst part of every day was walking away from her and leaving her there while we went back to our somewhat normalised life on the outside.
3) The loss of control
This is probably a fairly obvious thought on reflection, but the realisation of knowing that there is absolutely nothing you can do to control what is going on can really hurt sometimes. I love being in control and knowing everything. I’m not a massive fan of change at the best of times, and I love to work to a plan and know what is going on. Life in the NICU is far from controllable for parents and you just have to let it all happen on its own and let everything run its course.
4) Try and keep up with a normal routine
One of the big ones for me was I wish I knew I needed to keep up with normal routines as much as possible. For me, this should have meant I continued to go to the gym, go for runs, play golf and spend quality fun time with my wife. I stopped it all due to a number of factors, primarily because I felt guilty for doing these things while my daughter was fighting for her life in the first week and the fact that I felt like I am no longer allowed to have fun, I must feel sad and depressed. Completely stopping my fitness activities made me feel terrible within the first two weeks and it just got worse from there. I drank so much and ate some pretty terrible fast food out of pure convenience, and it made me feel really bad. I couldn’t sleep, I lost all motivation and I put on a lot of weight. The dad bod is a real thing! The balance of all of this, is the partnership you have with your wife or partner. Make sure you look after each other’s mental and physical states. Let them go to the gym or for a run while you go to the hospital and swap out in the afternoon. Going for a run or doing something you enjoy will make you feel 100 times better mentally and physically, which in the long run is so bloody important!
5) Value the small wins
Cherishing the small wins or small victories will help you along the way. There are so many milestones your baby will reach and every single one of them should be celebrated. One thing that I made sure of in the first week was that we celebrated the birth of our daughter. We didn’t do this for 6 days because we didn’t know if we should be or not. But it got to the point where I had the realization that we needed to lift our spirits and celebrate that we had a baby! It actually lifted our spirits a little to be able to acknowledge the miracle that had occurred and that our little girl was alive and fighting! You will all have your own special moments on your journey, and you should find a way to celebrate them, even if you think they are small and insignificant, they could end up being huge milestones in your baby's journey. So, cherish them all!
6) Don’t compare your experiences
You can’t compare apples with watermelons, so don’t even try! Comparing babies is tough and can lead you down the wrong path. Every baby is different and each journey is different. You will never know what has happened to lead to a baby being in the NICU next to yours, so avoid comparing. Certainly, chat to the parents and ask questions if they are happy to chat, but don’t sit there and worry that will happen to us, or how come they are so far ahead of us. There are so many factors at play, so don’t ever think that you are going backwards just because someone else seems to be going forwards.
7) The journey doesn’t end in the NICU
I only learnt this one after finally getting our little girl home – but your journey doesn’t end when they are finally discharged from the NICU. Our little girl went home on low flow oxygen, and she will be on it for at least 3 months. So everywhere she goes, an oxygen tank is never far behind her. For some strange reason I thought that having a NICU baby meant that they are now fully trained babies. Whilst this is true to some small degree, they are still teeny tiny little babies and need a lot more care and attention. We now have to use their corrected age for everything and I remember in the week we took her home she was nearly 3 and a half months old, yet she was technically only 4 days old corrected, so I had to curb my expectations.
8) Go back and visit
Show off your little prize to the nurses after a few months because they’ll be genuinely interested and keen to see how they have progressed. Taking your little one back to see the people that kept them alive will be a massive reward for all of the NICU staff.
Finally, whilst I had my journey, and countless dads have had theirs before me and many more will follow, only you will know what you‘re going though as every single baby and every single journey is different. Certainly, take on board advice, help, and guidance along the way, but you need to mould it to fit your shape. It needs to fit your circumstances and what you’re dealing with emotionally and mentally.”
Miracle Babies Foundation would like to thank Matt for sharing his story and perspective of being a Dad in the NICU.
*Content and images are from Dads of the NICU