There is much focus on bonding with your premature baby after they are born and indeed many hospitals have a policy of immediate skin to skin contact and a first breastfeed to be undertaken in the first hour, if possible. This is all part of the wonderful experience of bringing your baby into the world, but when your baby arrives early your ability to bond with them can be disrupted.
The emotional turmoil alone is enough to interfere with this process; however, there are some strategies that can help you bond with your baby, even under difficult circumstances. The important thing to remember is that bonding (even with full term births) happens over time, so your presence is the most important thing – even if you can’t feed or hold your baby, just being near them will help begin the process. Your baby knows you already – they know your smell, your voice, the way you move, so they will know when you are there.
Often babies that arrive early are whisked off to NICU, leaving no opportunity for a fleeting cuddle. In some cases there is simply no time to waste to ensure the baby has the best opportunity to thrive. Missing out on this first cuddle can be extremely upsetting for parents. Although it is understood why, it is still difficult to deal with.
If you are able to, ask to see your baby as soon as possible. It may be a case of looking at them through the window of the NICU ward, but seeing them will help begin the process of bonding. If you have had an emergency cesarean (which is not unusual with pre-term births), you probably won’t be able to get out of bed. If you can’t be moved, ask for a nurse to bring you a photo of your baby. NICU units usually have Polaroid cameras, so staff should be able to produce a photo for you almost immediately.
Being involved in your baby’s care as much as you can will help you bond with your baby. Expressing breastmilk for your baby, if they are not strong enough to breastfeed is a good start. Touching their hands or feet if you are unable to hold them, will help you feel closer to them. Your baby knows your voice, so gentle talking and singing will reinforce your presence.
There is a specific hold just for early arrivals called the ‘Kangaroo Cuddle’. The Kangaroo Cuddle is when you hold your baby upright and skin to skin, on your chest. The idea is that you create a protective mini-pouch for your baby by holding them against your skin and covering them with a blanket or your clothes. Research has shown that ‘kangaroo care’ helps regulate heat rate and temperature in premature babies. Gradually increasing the length of time you do the kangaroo cuddle for will help you get to know your baby and their body language. Speak to your doctor or nurse about the kangaroo cuddle as they will show you how it works and guide you through the first time.
Whilst having a baby arrive early and be sent to NICU is a very anxiety-provoking time, the hospital staff recognise this and will do all that they can to support you and assist with your ability to bond with your newborn.