Why It’s Not Your Fault That Your Baby Is Born Prematurely
“Mothers of premature babies feel that it is their fault, mothers feel robbed of their pregnancy, mothers feel angry, useless and ashamed, mothers feel like walking away from their baby. And yet, they come, day after day, to spend hours by their babies’ side because they cannot bear to not come.”
Baby Born at 26 weeks.
When I heard those words, my daughter Lolo* was one week old, and seriously ill. A few hours earlier I had briefly thought she might be better off dead than suffering, and then I wanted her to live so that her older sister, who was just a toddler at the time, would remember her. Instantly I had felt ashamed for thinking she would be better off dead, and for the reasons I wanted her to live. I was a terrible mother, or so I thought.
But the nursing sister at the hospital where my daughter was born had seen many mothers come and go, she knew what I was going through was normal for the circumstances, and she helped me to see that too. Her words got me through the months that followed. In writing this post I hope that if you or someone you know has a preterm baby, perhaps these words will help.
Having an early baby can be a huge shock. I had little warning it was about to happen, but even if you had some time to prepare you are still likely to be experiencing some of the feelings above. You are still likely to be wondering if your baby will survive, if she or he will be okay, if it’s your fault. I can’t answer the first two of these, but I do know that it’s not your fault. Even if you did things you know are risky, such as smoke during pregnancy, beating yourself over it now is not going to help your baby – and is more likely to make you want to go on smoking to get some relief from your conflicting emotions.
The human mind looks for evidence to try to support its beliefs. We all do that. So if you believe it’s your fault, your mind will keep coming up with evidence to support that. In case this is a little hard to grasp: here’s an example. I was ill when my daughter was born, so that was probably what caused early labour. My toddler had been ill for weeks and I been up in the night with her several times, was generally exhausted and eventually caught the same virus, yet after Lolo’s birth instead of feeling empathy for myself I felt guilty and that somehow I should have done something different. A nurse tried to reassure me, saying, “But you had to look after your little girl.” She was right, and yet my mind carried on looking for evidence that it was my fault. None of this made me a better mother; it just made me feel guilty.
It’s very, very easy to slip into blaming ourselves, thinking that somehow we are doing the ‘right’ thing by doing so. But blame doesn’t make us more responsible, if anything it makes us less so because we feel so terrible we don’t take the action we could. In the smoking example above, responsible action would recognising that you smoked because it was an attempt to escape from uncomfortable feelings and then getting support to cope with those feelings and so now be able to stop smoking and give your baby the fresh environment.
Help to get over feelings of guilt
Hold your baby as often as you can.
If your baby is stable you should be able to do Kangaroo Care, and this will help you to bond with your baby. Even if your baby is too ill, you it still be possible to Containment Hold. You can find more information on these in my article on Kangaroo Care. When my daughter was very ill I placed my hands on her during blood tests and this helped her stay calm. It may not seem like you are doing much, but to babies who need a lot of invasive treatment touch can become associated with pain. These methods help babies to experience loving touch, as does baby massage, which you will be able to do when your baby is a little older.
If you are able to, express milk for your baby.
Again, this helped me to feel involved with my baby and to feel I was of some use. If you aren’t able to express because you are too ill yourself, please try be kind to yourself, and get support for any feelings this creates.
Accept any support from hospital staff or other professionals that feels right for you.
Trust your intuition; some nurses and doctors will seem more supportive than others, so share your feelings with those you feel are most empathic towards you.
Talk to other parents to get support and to share experiences.
No matter how many ‘miracle’ babies you may have read about, the reality of an intensive care unit and a tiny baby can be frightening. When Lolo was newborn the baby next to her seemed enormous. He had been born six months before, and, like Lolo, arrived three months early. Talking to his parents helped me to realize my baby could survive. Talking to other mothers whose babies had been born at a later stage than mine, but who shared similar feelings to those I was experiencing, helped me to see how universal these feelings were. (I had previously believed that if I had managed to carry my baby a few more weeks I wouldn’t feel so guilty.)
Give support to other mothers.
When I saw another mother who was clearly distressed I told her what the nursing sister had told me. It helped this woman, who had been extremely ill when her baby was born, but it also helped me.
Keep a journal.
Writing gives you an outlet for thoughts and emotions when you haven’t got someone around to talk to, or if you don’t feel like talking. (Of course, as with all suggestions here, if you find it doesn’t help, then please don’t do it.)
Remember you are doing the best you can with the resources you have right now.
Being supportive of yourself and asking for support will increase your internal resources. Punishing yourself will decrease them.
As much as possible take each moment as it comes.
When our minds race off into scary thoughts of what could happen in the future it can feel overwhelming and you may feel that you won’t be able to cope. Just noticing your mind doing this will help you become a little calmer. You can also remind yourself that none of the images your mind is creating are happening now.
And if you forget all this and find yourself deep in feelings of guilt again, please just remember that’s normal. Remember you are doing the best you can right now.
*Name has been changed to protect my daughter’s privacy.