December 28, 2018 | Karen Alexander
Men think of themselves as protectors. This is true even as they transition to fatherhood. But in truth, becoming a parent is often as stressful for men as for the women carrying the baby, especially in the case of a preterm birth, when an infant is born before 37 weeks’ gestation. In this situation, it’s much more than just the birth of a baby—it’s an extraordinary life situation, and since birth is an occasion that focuses almost exclusively on mother and baby, the feelings of a preterm father often fall by the wayside. By providing the dad the emotional support he needs during this uncertain time, the entire family will benefit.
Fathers’ experiences are rarely heard, partly because men are often more reluctant to share their emotions. Moreover, formal pregnancy education and ongoing support during the months prior to birth is often lacking for fathers.
While serving as a registered nurse in the military and preparing transport of preterm infants for further care, I often wondered what fathers’ emotional experiences were. When I interviewed fathers of preterm infants, they shared thoughts that demonstrated their need for support services to better cope with this life-changing event. Dads anticipated their child’s birth with joy, but when the child came early, they experienced intense feelings of anxiety about their baby’s health. New and current dads said they often felt overprotective because of a loss of control over the situation.
In addition, fathers said the experience felt isolating, as though they were bystanders during and after the birth, and reported an inability to begin bonding with their infant. All reported they felt completely unprepared, psychologically, emotionally and physically, to cope with the situation. And juggling job and financial responsibilities and caring for older children while facing a potentially lengthy hospital stay frequently combined to create deep feelings of guilt and fear in preterm dads.
Where there are almost endless resources for mothers of preterm babies, fathers have expressed difficulty finding a source of emotional support. This is why it’s incumbent upon others close to the family to seek out the father of a preterm baby and give him the opportunity to express his anxieties.
Through these fathers’ stories, healthcare providers can begin to target the most effective methods to offer support through education programs to fathers-to-be. Because the child’s father is often the mother’s primary source of support, it’s crucial to help him seek avenues of education, mentorship and offer innovative practices of care before the pregnancy and continue throughout it and after the baby is born. For example, men report having a male nurse to serve as role models by offering follow-up care, as well as joining community-based support groups for fathers would be extremely helpful in adjusting to their new life as the father of a preterm infant.
Encouraging fathers to tell their stories will help other men in their journey of fathering a preterm infant. Fathers expressed their desire to make their stories known, to educate nurses and other health professionals working with families who may experience infants born too soon.
Fathers often respond to the stress of preterm birth differently than mothers. Their feelings are powerful. Acknowledging their fears and offering emotional reinforcement will make a significant, positive difference in the way both parents handle their baby’s time in the NICU.
Karen Alexander, Ph.D., is associate professor of nursing and the nursing program director at UHCL. She’s the author of the book, “The Experience of Fathering a Preterm Infant: A Phenomenological Study,” and her areas of expertise are nursing education and nursing in the military.