Life in a neonatal intensive care unit is hard for everyone. Often, it’s anticipation of that joyous discharge day that helps parents get through.
But, according to a new study published in the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, dads of preemies are more stressed than ever after their baby goes home. Meanwhile, mothers’ stress levels remained consistent.
Scientists determined the stress levels of parents during babies’ transitions from NICU to home by measuring the stress cortisol amounts in their saliva prior to the baby’s hospital discharge and for two weeks afterward. They also had the parents complete paper surveys. They found that moms’ stress levels went back down to their pre-discharge levels pretty quickly while the fathers’ stress levels steadily increased.
The hypothesis for the reason why dads are more stressed after the hospital stay actually says a lot about the pressure on all newbie fathers.
“Dad goes from a situation where the baby and mom are cared for by experts in the hospital to having to simultaneously care for his baby, partner and work. He is supposed to be the ‘rock’ for his partner but the stress can really set in,” explains lead author Dr. Craig Garfield.
According to Garfield, dads of NICU babies might be better prepared for their child’s arrival at home if they are able to spend more time getting comfortable caring for their child at the hospital. It’s hard enough to be a new parent when the baby is perfectly healthy. So, when the baby is extra vulnerable, dads really need some extra confidence to get through those early weeks.
“While finally bringing a baby home is really wonderful, it can also be stressful because of sleep deprivation, the lack of control and having to respond constantly to the baby’s needs,” Garfield said.
His research shows fathers are likely minimizing how stressed they really are, as the stress levels recorded in the salivary test results were higher than what the dads reported feeling in the survey.
An associate professor of pediatrics and of medical social sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Garfield recommends families remember dads can’t be the rock all the time—which is true for both fathers of preemies and term babies.
“Dads should be telling the mom to go take a walk, take a shower, see a friend,” he explains. “But moms can also say, ‘Why don’t you go to the gym, see your friends, meet someone after work?’ as ways to reduce some of the stress.”
Fathers need to be aware that stress and depression don’t just happen to moms. Family-centered care in the NICU and support for both parents afterward may be the key to keeping dads’ stress levels down after discharge day.
According to Garfield, babies thrive when moms and dads thrive. So taking care of ourselves is an important part of taking care of them.