Going Through The Neonatal Journey: From a Dad's Perspective
One in eight babies require neonatal support at birth either due to prematurity or because they are born sick. Some babies require extra support for just a few days while others may require hospital care for several months. As part of our partnership with The Ickle Pickles Charity, we wanted to speak to a parent that had been through this journey to get an insight into the rollercoaster of emotions that being in such an incredibly stressful situation creates. We spoke to Carl, author of The Prem Dad blog and father of twin boys to learn about his journey from a dad's perspective.
Hi Carl, thank you for joining us on The Patch and for agreeing to share your story. Please can you start by telling us about your neonatal journey?
Our sons were born at 27 weeks and 4 days gestation, so around 13 weeks premature. It was a complete shock - we knew there was a chance they'd arrive early but not this early. There had been no complications in my wife's pregnancy in the build up and the labour was spontaneous. Her waters broke around 1am and both boys were born by 7am, so it all happened really quickly. They spent just over 9 weeks in hospital, the first two having been transferred to a specialist hospital in Sheffield and the remainder back in our local NICU at Scunthorpe General Hospital. Despite some early health concerns and scares, both boys are doing well and are thriving at three and a half years old. They're hitting all the milestones expected and have been discharged from follow up appointments with the paediatrician.
Once the twins were born, were you able to stay with them?
As soon as they were born, they were taken away on individual trolleys (they were born 50 minutes apart, naturally). I was able to see them alone a short while later in incubators, but my wife had to wait until a local anaesthetic had worn off to see them a few hours later. They were then taken via ambulance to Sheffield - my wife went in a separate ambulance and I followed in the car. We stayed on the NICU unit in some accommodation for the first week or so, and then had a couple of days just off the hospital grounds in a nearby flat, so we were able to visit the boys any time.
How did you juggle working around having the babies in hospital? Did you delay your paternity leave until they were home?
My employer at the time was really understanding and gave me an additional two weeks compassionate leave on top of the two weeks paternity leave. I was also able to work remotely three days a week which meant I didn't have to commute every day and could work from the hospital if necessary. Despite that, it was really hard to find the motivation and focus to be able to do my job effectively - often I found my mind wandering to the boys and my wife throughout the work day. I became quieter as well and suffered from an increased level of anxiety when I was in the office, which led to a panic attack on one occasion.
What did you find from a dad’s perspective particularly difficult?
The main thing I thought was evident is the lack of advice directly targeting dads. I understand that care of the mother is paramount, but I felt there were often times where I was expected to be the strong one and that wasn't always easy. The main reason I started my blog was to share the experience from a dad's perspective and hopefully reassure other dads going through the same.
What did you find the hardest about having the twins in neonatal care?
It was physically and emotionally draining; it really was the most difficult experience I've lived. If I had to pick one thing, I'd say it was that it was so hard to split myself equally between my family. I had two sons in separate incubators and I felt bad spending time at one cotside and not the other. And I also felt as though I couldn't be there for my wife as much as she needed me to be.
Having babies in neonatal care is incredibly stressful and can be a real rollercoaster of emotions. What did you find that helped you cope?
It was a really tough time, and it had some bad effects on my mental health. For example, my wife would speak to other parents on the unit but I was so ridden with anxiety that I couldn't do the same. I kind of hid away from speaking to others which wasn't helpful looking back. I've always enjoyed writing though, so I must have had an idea that I'd write about the experience at some point as I regularly made little notes on my phone about things that had happened and how I was feeling. Someone also bought us a 'reflection' book, so we made it a mission each day to write down three positive things that had happened (which could be hard sometimes if it'd been a bad day).
Having a baby in neonatal care can make it hard as a parent to connect with your babies, especially when they are hooked up to machines and seem so fragile. What helped you bond?
It's really difficult and quite traumatic to see your child in such a serious condition. To be fair, the NICU nurses in both hospitals encouraged us to take part in the care routines pretty much from the first day or so. So we changed nappies, did tube feeds and that kind of thing. We also were able to take part in kangaroo care eventually (it was 6 days before we could even hold our babies). Other things included reading story books, which felt a bit embarrassing at first as there are other parents in the room so it's not very private. But eventually I lost the inhibitions a bit and tried to get into character!
How did you find out about Ickle Pickles?
One of the things missing, I felt, was access to information and support for parents - especially dads. It was actually my mum who started sending me links to various articles and resources including Ickle Pickles, which was reassuring to know that support was out there even if it wasn't always visible.
What advice do you have for other dads or parents going through the experience?
The main thing I always say is that it's okay to accept help. It's such a tough experience to go through that you can't be expected to sail through unaffected. I would suggest speaking to others, whether that's a partner, friends, family or even the nurses on the unit who can be great sounding boards. If offered any counselling, I'd suggest taking it as it can be really helpful to get things off your chest.
Thank you Carl for sharing such a traumatic experience with us and helping us raise awareness of a side to having a baby that no one wants to be a part of.
You can read more about Carl's neonatal journey through his blog here where he very openly discusses his NICU experience as well as giving important advice to other parents going through a similar experience.
Help us raise money for The Ickle Pickles who support babies like Carl's that need extra support at birth. 10% of each sale of our Tiny Tatty Teddy Multisensory Bear goes directly to Ickle Pickles. You can find out about the fantastic work they do here