When this then does occur, many women may find themselves presented with a complex array of emotions and anxieties to process in the early weeks of the baby's new life.
Grappling with anxiety
Within what we hope will be one the most joyful moments of our lives, the early days may be filled with a sudden and unexpected anxiety for the survival of the baby. Babies born prematurely face significant challenges. Many parents describe feeling overwhelmed by the vast amount of medical information they must quickly digest. Beginning the parenting journey in the presence of such profoundly frightening realities places a tremendous strain upon even the most resilient of parents. Many parents of babies who enter special care may suddenly find themselves grappling with an onslaught of new anxieties as they realise the possibility of significant complications facing preterm infants. Likening the journey to an emotional rollercoaster, many new parents find themselves reeling from one hurdle to the next, celebrating the overcoming of one difficulty only for another to take its place.
Grief and loss
Alongside this pervasive anxiety, there may be profound and unspoken experiences of sadness and loss. Often through pregnancy we carry fantasies and dreams of what the first meeting, the first cuddle, the early days and even the early months with our baby will be like. Throughout pregnancy, these early moments may have been the most tangible images a new mother has held onto. Rarely do we as mothers imagine that the first cuddle might not happen for hours or even days and that when it does occur, our lovely baby will have wires attached.
For most women whose children are in special care, their stay in hospital is limited generally to only a few days. The experience of leaving the hospital, often with arms full of flowers and gifts but no baby is for many women a terribly sad event. Going home to an empty house, whilst knowing your baby is separated from you many kilometres away in hospital can leave countless mothers with complex feelings of grief, numbness and exhaustion. Ahead lays a road of weeks or even months of twice daily hospital visits and the logistical nightmare of expressing breast milk, being present for feed times and procedures and often juggling the needs for time and attention of other children. Logistics aside, the trauma of being kept physically separated when every part of you longs to hold your baby close can take a huge toll upon mothers whose early post birth fantasies never included being kept apart.
The impact upon early bonding and attachment
For some women, caring for a baby whilst they are in special care may present additional challenges to the development of the early 'in love' feelings they imagined they would feel. Feelings of emotional detachment from the baby, numbness, a deep sadness and a sense of powerlessness are all commonly experienced by women whose babies enter special care. If left unrecognised these feelings may impact upon bonding and the development of an emotional attachment.
Thankfully most special care units, being aware of this, have specific attachment focused practices which encourage bonding. Facilitating opportunities for skin to skin contact, encouraging mothers to express breast milk and allowing mothers to have as much involvement as possible in the daily care of their babies are all practices which positively impact upon a mother and baby’s developing bond. Given the physical separation and sense of alienation that many women feel whilst their babies are in special care, these simple practices can have a significant and very positive impact upon not only the mother’s emotional adjustment, but also to the process of bonding and attachment.
Special care may not have been an anticipated experience, yet by no means is it an automatic challenge to bonding.
For many mothers, the bond is simply stronger.
Borne out of the early weeks of helplessness and shock, a fierce feeling of protectiveness emerges. Ever mindful of their baby’s early fragile start, many mothers may experience a heightened sense of closeness and attunement with their little one; a feeling which often remains for the rest of their child’s life.
Little things which help with bonding and attachment
Special care often leads to special bonding. If your baby has entered special care, the following may help to grow the love between you and your baby
- Hold your baby as much as you can. For some, this may be in the form of ‘kangaroo care’ or providing the baby with skin-to-skin contact eg tucked in against your chest where the baby can hear your heartbeat. If this is impossible due to wires and various other medical equipment, simply stroking your baby or holding their finger can do so much to develop the bond between you.
- Talk to your baby as much as you can. The most familiar sound to your baby will be the sound of your voice, the same one it heard throughout pregnancy. Talking lovingly and soothingly will both calm your baby and provide a sense of familiarity in the face of the foreign environment of the SCU.
- Do as much as you can for your baby. Changing nappies, assisting with feeds or being there when routine procedures are conducted will strengthen the bond of familiarity between you and connect with your new role as his or her mother. If staff at the SCU haven’t encouraged you to do this, ask.
- Little things do count. As soon as possible dress him or her in special clothing from home. Put on the special hat to keep him warm. Take lots of photos of him and keep them with you at all times. Put photos of yourself up in his humidicrib if possible. Ask staff if you can place a small item or your clothing (with your scent) or a breastpad with your milk on it next to him.
- If possible, attempt to breastfeed your baby or to express breastmilk. Many mothers report that in the face of so much helplessness and loss of control, this was the most tangible thing they could offer their child in their fight to become stronger.
- On the flipside, if for whatever reason breastfeeding isn’t happening and your supply is low when you express, don’t overwhelm yourself with guilt or recriminations. Even women (like myself) who have babies under the most perfect conditions struggle to breastfeed, let alone women who are under the enormous physical and emotional stress of having a child in care.
- Try to have as much of a voice in your child’s care as possible. Ask lots of questions about how he is doing, clarify what you don’t understand and ask repeatedly to be allowed as much physical contact as is possible. Most SCU staff will be very sensitive to this and will be only too happy to give you as much information as you can. If you are unlucky enough to strike an unhelpful midwife or nurse, ask to be reallocated or find another nurse who seems more sensitive.
- Finally, as much as you can, enlist the help of those around you to enable you to spend time with your baby whilst they are in care. Accept all offers of meals, washing and transport and surround yourself with kind, helpful and emotionally containing friends and family. If your kind yet interfering aunt longs to share with you stories of other women’s horrendous special care experiences, this may be the time to let the answering machine pick up. Choose where you want your energy to go to – to you, your baby and your growing relationship.
Leisa Stathis is the author of Becoming a Mother, Finch Publishing, 2015. Available in most bookstores and as an ebook.