I am blessed and proud to be the father of two boys, Jimmy (30 weeks) and Johnny (31 weeks), and one girl, Emily (26 weeks). All three were born premature and spent a combined 139 nights inpatient in the hospital NICU. Each time was an emotional roller coaster for my wife and me. Going through it once does not make the next ride any easier, whether it is one day or several months in the NICU. They each come with much fear, uncertainty, and sleepless nights. And though I received great support from hospital staff, family, and friends, being a NICU father can leave a man feeling a bit helpless. I am sharing my story to help other dads and caregivers in my situation with some insights on what to expect.
Rest assured; you are not alone in a NICU journey.
The first and perhaps biggest challenge happens at birth, when your baby is rushed to the NICU. That time of joy quickly turns to concern and confusion. It is important to be bedside with mom to support and care for her post-delivery. Initially, you may not be able to see and hold your baby depending on the circumstances. Waiting to visit your baby for the first time there are a lot of stresses--be reassured that the baby is being cared for by excellent nurses and doctors, ensuring your baby’s needs are being met. And with the current COVID-19 pandemic, your ability to visit may be further restricted in order to maintain a sterile environment that protects both the infants and healthcare workers. This might seem unfathomable as a father, so be prepared, be patient, and remain confident that better days are ahead.
When you are able to visit and hold your baby for the first time, that unforgettable moment might be different than you expect. You will likely see incubators, wires, and other equipment surrounding your baby that may look scary but are standard components in NICU care. Emily was born at 2 pounds, 6 ounces. My first time holding her was a month after her birthday. Be sure to ask hospital staff if and how you can participate in your baby’s care sessions as, while they may seem trivial, they often will leave you proud and energized for the next session.
Once more physical interaction is allowed with your baby, embrace the opportunity. Bonding with mom via kangaroo care is vitally important, but it is just as rewarding for dad as well. Holding your baby on your bare chest, heartbeat to heartbeat, is widely believed to be very beneficial to their health and development. And I can tell you from firsthand experience that it does wonders for putting a nervous dad at ease!
The next challenge is going home while your baby is still in the NICU. When my first son was born, beyond calling the bedside nurse for updates, there were not many options available to help assuage the anxiety of not knowing how he was at every moment. This took a heavy toll on our family with many sleepless nights, followed by mornings spent rushing to the NICU for a visit. The good news is, as I experienced with Emily, technology has caught up to the problem. Mobile apps and secure cameras are now widely available that enable parents to monitor their baby 24/7. I cannot tell you how reassuring it was having access to these tools during such a stressful time. And with COVID-19 restrictions in place, these options become especially important to NICU parents.
More good news.
There is much greater awareness of the need to support the community of NICU families. Today is a Good Day is a great foundation in the Philadelphia area that was there for my family on day one, providing care packages and emotional encouragement that my wife and I deeply appreciated. Many others exist across the country. Take advantage of the opportunities they offer to participate in parental support groups. The March of Dimes is also a helpful resource for NICU families.
My three-time experience as a NICU father makes me even more fulfilled by my job at ProgenyHealth. After my second son Johnny’s birth, my eyes were opened to the need for technology advancements at companies serving vulnerable communities. That realization motivated my initial leap into the healthcare vertical with ProgenyHealth, where I was proud to lead the team responsible for developing and deploying our Baby Trax® platform, purpose-built to support healthy NICU outcomes.
With Emily’s low birthweight, she qualified for Medicaid and other early intervention services. Going through this new process and enrollment cycle was another eye opener. The guidance we received from the hospital social worker was helpful, but still an intimidating process where families need support to understand how these complicated systems work. I have since developed an even deeper appreciation for the vital role of ProgenyHealth’s case management team in educating moms, dads, and caregivers, making the unknown understood, planning goals to achieve together, and reducing so many worries for families so they can focus on their babies.
This Father’s Day, this father of three NICU graduates is proud to be part of ProgenyHealth’s team, and especially proud of watching his superhero NICU graduates!
Jim Clarke is Vice President of Information Technology & Informatics at ProgenyHealth