Six weeks out of the year about 40 horses run wild in the open space behind my house. While attempting to lure them close to the barbed wire with carrots and long green grass, I met two ten year old twin boys and their mother. After complementing me on my three kids, she went on to tell me that she had always envisioned having a big family. However she was definitely “done” having kids after her experience with the twins. I invited her over. She told me her story. How they were born premature. How she couldn’t hold them for the first month of their lives. How she would never go through such a traumatic experience again.
I did a little research on parental anxiety in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). She certainly is not alone.
It is hard to be at ease in the NICU. Here are some factors that explain why:
- Your baby’s position, or appearance, or behavior in the incubator- The skin tone, size and position of your baby may be unexpected. He may be breathing irregularly, and may be either moving restlessly, crying or still and expressionless. If he is sad or is crying, it may be disturbing and even debilitating to watch.
- The equipment, the hum of machines, and the sounds of intensive care-The tubes and machines used for your baby may be both intimidating and overwhelming. There may be constant noise, beeping, or other babies crying. Other stressed parents that are visiting their little ones can make for a tense and upsetting atmosphere.
- The hustle and bustle of the technicians and nurses- Sometimes the nurses may go about a procedure pretty hastily without explaining what they are doing. Sometimes the medical jargon may be over your head. Information concerning your baby may even be conflicting which can be incredibly frustrating.
- The actual physical separation of you and your baby- You can’t feed your baby or hold her when you want to. You don’t have a chance to intervene when your baby cries or seems distressed. You feel powerless over the progress of your baby. Essentially you have not had the time to develop a relationship as the mother/infant dyad has been torn apart.
Hospitals are endeavoring to ease parental anxiety in NICUs by making them as peaceful an environment as possible. The staff is trained to hustle less, to be very sympathetic, and to educate and thoroughly explain the procedures and the progress of the baby to the parents.
Hospitals hope to support parents and reduce anxiety and depression through...
- Organized support groups
- Individual development care programs
- Classes that teach emotional coping skills and problem solving methods
- Buddy programs
- Journal writing
- Improved communication between staff and parents
These efforts to ease parental anxiety are definitely a step in the right direction. They are certainly right about one thing: interventions to support parents during the care of their preterm infant in the NICU will most likely improve outcomes for both parent and baby.
Here’s the deal. Classes and improvements in communication help. But, offering out coping mechanisms is not as powerful as encouraging parents to step up and play an active role in their baby's care. Kangaroo Care supports parents and allows them to play an active role in the care of their preterm infants. This high impact care should be prioritized, not only for the crucial health benefits of the baby but also because it empowers parents.
Kangaroo Care is engaging; It brings mom and baby (or dad and baby) together. It cuts down the distance. Parents feel close to their babies. It fosters attachment and a sense of confidence. Attachment inspires nurturing behaviors. Nurturing behaviors support the growth and development of the baby. It's good for all involved.
When a mother experiences Kangaroo Care, this loving touch from her baby, she knows that she is doing something incredible for her baby that no stranger can do. She feels that her baby recognizes her voice and who she is. She is comforted by her baby’s relaxation, and witnessing his surrender into deep sleep. She becomes confident that her baby is taken care of and may survive. She feels like she is in control. Kangaroo Care strengthens the emotional bond between babies and their parents.
Kangaroo Care can be a positive way to shut the door on what has been a trying and traumatic experience.
To reduce anxiety, hospitals should support parents during the care of their preterm infant. By educating, integrating and facilitating Kangaroo Care, they will be promoting a high impact care that brings mom and her baby together, and is supportive and therapeutic to both.
Kangaroo Care eases parental anxiety.
Kangaroo Care is empowering.
Kangaroo Care is healing to both babies and parents.
I wish that the mother I met, who told me her story, had been more empowered. I wish that she felt more in control and was able to feel closer to her boys while they were in their incubators in the NICU. I wish this empowerment and emotional connection for all parents of preterm infants.