Perhaps this month you will indulge my departure from a clinical topic to a more philosophical one. I have recently been contemplating the responsibilities of parenthood and observations of those who bear these responsibilities well and those who do less well. For many potential parents, the decision to bring a child into the world is a long-considered, well-thought out one. For others it comes quite unexpectedly and perhaps at a very bad time in their lives. However, regardless of how well-planned a pregnancy is, it never includes having a very premature infant with many complications and perhaps lifelong effects. Parenthood is challenging in the best of circumstances. Adding the untimely birth of an extremely fragile infant is sometimes overwhelming. And for those who are parents simply by biology, this assault in a very young life or one already overwhelmed by tragedy certainly may have an effect on the ongoing well-being of the new infant, who is desperate for love and affection.
The NICU environment is so familiar to many of us that the effect on the parents and family of having an infant there may not always be appreciated. Just think, for a moment, how disrupting and stressful it would be to have a close family member in the hospital for weeks or months. Even a few days can be quite stressful. Add to that a commute to the hospital that takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours to complete, other children who still need the attention of their parent(s), perhaps a job to go back to and any other number of issues that people in general must face. We can appreciate the trauma of having a 24 or 26 week infant in the NICU who is on the ventilator and at risk for many other complications, but consider the trauma for many of things that seem to us to be pretty run-of-the-mill. I once worked with a nurse whose term infant was in the NICU for a couple of weeks with meconium aspiration. Her little one was quite sick for the first few days but recovered well and went home completely normal. However, she shared that she was completely taken aback by the stress, worry and disappointment she felt over having her infant in the NICU. Each family’s reaction will be different and whatever it is, it is important to allow that reaction while offering support.
How can we offer support to parents in the midst of such an experience? Of course, providing excellent care is part of it, but many reports of customer satisfaction in health care state that this is a basic expectation and I would agree. A statement I came across recently in a book on the culture of native peoples says that “….knowledge and understanding are not sufficient in themselves. In fact, they could be dangerous if not accompanied by compassion.”1 In other words, it’s not just what or how we do something but the spirit in which we do it.
Read more on this subject in the Medela Neonatal Perspectives Blog:
A Mother’s Power in the NICU by Sandy Sundquist Beauman, MSN, RNC-NIC or
NICU Clinicians and Parents: Building Supportive Relationships by Evi Dewhurst
1. Schaef AW. Native Wisdom for White Minds. Random House Publishing; 1995.