Coping With Separation From Your Baby

Mother's Hospital Discharge

Going home without her was about the toughest thing of all. ...You get this disconnected feeling, as if part of you isn't fully there. It's hard to describe. ~~Linda

It was weird to return home without my baby. I felt as if everything had changed, but when I returned to my apartment, it seemed as if everything was the same. I was at a loss. it was painful to look at the empty crib -- I so longed to have it full. ~~Claire

Coming home was especially difficult. I knew I was leaving the most important piece of my life in the hospital. Some friends had decorated our house with "It's a boy" decorations. ...I don't know if that made it easier or harder. It was very depressing. ~~Misty

I can't even begin to tell you how terrible it is to have to go home without your child, not knowing if you'll ever see him again. ~~Dawn

Being discharged without your baby may feel like the most devastating separation. Even if you knew you were likely to deliver prematurely, you probably didn't envision leaving the hospital with empty arms. Seeing other mothers being discharged with their healthy newborns presents an unbearable cruel contrast with your situation. As Jayna recalls: "This new mom had her baby with her. They were going home together. My baby would have to stay in the hospital for months, fighting for his life."

It can feel strange to enter your home, knowing your due date is still weeks or months away but that you are no longer pregnant. Instead of carrying a baby in your womb, you are carrying a heavy emotional burden.

I firmly believe that leaving the hospital that day (and I stayed as many days as they would allow me) was the hardest thing I had to do. I was discharged with three other mothers, all of whom had their babies with them -- big, healthy, fat newborns -- and mine was still upstairs hooked up to machines that he couldn't live without. And I was being forced to leave him. I can't think of anything that was as hard. ~~Sterling

Even though I knew my chances of having the babies in the NICU were about 95 percent, I hoped throughout my pregnancy that I would take them home with me. When I went home without them, I didn't feel like a good parent. I felt like I was leaving them behind. I felt great guilt, rather than the joy I had anticipated. ~~Jill

Debbie was being discharged the day after the kids were born, and it was very ugly because here, you're carrying twins, you give birth to your twins, and you come home with nothing. ... We had the feeling of, like, a close family member had died -- it was like coming home after a funeral instead of coming home after giving birth. ~~Mitch

Your discharge may also bring you some relief. After all, your home is more comfortable than a hospital room. Especially early on, when the NICU is so overwhelming and you don't feel at easy with your baby, being able to retreat to your home for rest and respite may not be all bad. It is normal both to wish for more closeness with your baby and to appreciate your freedom to leave the hospital. Separation can be both an agony and a relief.

I was discharged just thirty-six hours after his birth. It was so hard to tear myself away from that warming table. I knew that as soon as I left, he would go downhill again. I didn't want to leave, but I didn't want to stay. ~~Jayna

Going home was almost okay because I had spent about ten days in the hospital. I couldn't stand to see mothers and babies going home together. It hurt. So I yearned [for the babies] from the safety of my home. I was still too emotionally drained to think too much about anything else. I only rolled with what life was throwing my way. ~~Rosa

And so you struggle between these two worlds -- home and the NICU. As the numbness wears off, you may begin to feel obsessed with your baby. This obsession can seem odd since your infant is confined to the hospital and not completely under your care. But although your little one isn't home with you, your obsession is a natural expression of your devotion. Your heart is exactly where it should be -- with your baby.

I got in the car and cried all the way home. My husband tried to console me, but all I could think of was that I had just left my only son in the hands of strangers and he was less than one day old. We got home, and I greeted my two daughters with little enthusiasm, even though I hadn't been home with them in almost a month. all I could think of was getting Ricky home with us. It consumed my every moment, even the few that I slept. ~~Jenny

Tips for Coping with Separation from Your Baby

To cope with being separated from your baby, try any of the following ideas that feel right to you:

•Acknowledge your baby's birth in ways that comfort you. It may help to decorate the nursery; shop for baby clothes, toys, or supplies; or start a photo album or baby book.

•Send out birth announcements. Notify people of your baby's birth, sharing whatever details you choose in order to let them know that this is neither easy nor routine for you. This process also gives you a chance to welcome and show your love for your newborn.

•Write down your observations about your baby: preferences, features, resemblances, expressions.

•Learn more about your baby's delivery. Talk with your partner. Ask the attending nurses and doctors about the details. It may also help to ask why things were done the way they were. This information helps you reclaim memories, satisfies your need to know, and fills in the gaps of your story.

•Tell those who want to listen about the delivery and your baby. Telling your story over and over can be tremendously therapeutic. You can also write your story in a keepsake journal or baby book.

•Place breast pads or a cotton shirt you've slept in for several nights in your baby's incubator. Your scent may be a comforting reminder of your presence to your baby.

•Ask the nurse if you can have something with your baby's scent on it to take home with you. Smelling this item may help you feel close to your baby.

•Record yourself reading a story or poem, singing, or talking, and leave the tape in the NICU with your baby so it can be played at low volume when your baby is fussy.

•Spend as much time as you can or want with your baby. Don't let others discourage you or urge you to take breaks or to "get away" if you want to stay. Also, don't let others make you feel guilty if you do want to take time away.

•Take photographs of your baby and look at them regularly. It is especially important to keep updating the photos as your baby's appearance and condition change.

•Write notes to your baby about your thoughts, wishes, and devotion.

•Write notes "from" your baby to post at the bedside, to remind caregivers about special needs, sensitivities, or preferences.

•Post notes at your baby's besides to remind caregivers to wait for you to arrive if you plan to be there for feedings, care giving, or tests.

•Ask your baby's primary nurse to write short notes to you "from" your baby, reporting on his or her condition and new developments from your preemie's perspective. (For more on "baby diaries," see chapter 8.)

•Don't underestimate the power of breast milk. If you can do it, pumping can make you feel that you are doing something motherly. Even if your baby isn't ready for breast milk yet, pumping and storing the milk is a way to bank on the future.

•If you decide not to breast-feed or if milk production is not possible or too stressful for you, tell others not to second-guess you. You can give gentle hints, such as, "I really value the friends I have who can accept this without trying to change my mind, scold me, or lecture me about how to relax."

•Buy a special piece of jewelry or other commemorative object to represent your baby's presence in your family.

•Turn to religious or spiritual icons to mark the birth of your baby. Welcome and shelter your little one in ways that feel meaningful to you and your family and community.

Excerpted from Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey, by Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D. and Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D. (Fulcrum, 2004), pages 144-148.

Deborah Davis & Mara SteinDeborah L. Davis, Ph.D. & Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D.,'s Pregnancy/Infancy Crisis Experts are the authors of Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey, a 2004 National Parenting Publications Awards "Gold Award" winner. They also collaborated on Parent: You and Your Baby in the NICU (2002), as part of the nationwide March of Dimes NICU Project. been invited to regularly contribute to Advances in Neonatal Care, a neonatal nursing journal; their first article appears in Spring 2005. They are the founding members of Partners in Perinatal and Pediatric Consulting, which promotes developmentally supportive care for babies and parents, as well as collaboration between families and health care professionals.

Dr. Stein is a clinical psychologist in private practice, specializing in the emotional aspects of coping with crisis and adjustment around pregnancy and parenting. She is regularly invited to lecture and give workshops on these issues throughout the country to conferences of physician and nursing groups, doulas, and lactation consultants. Since 1997, she has been consulting with organizations and providing training to health care providers, guiding their efforts to improve the level of psychological support and developmentally supportive care to families during and subsequent to perinatal crisis.

Dr. Davis is a developmental psychologist, researcher, and writer who specializes in perinatal and neonatal crisis, medical ethics, parental bereavement, parent education, and child development. Dr. Davis is the author of four books for bereaved parents, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart (Fulcrum, 1991; 1996), Loving and Letting Go (Centering, 1993; 2002), Fly Away Home (Centering, 2000) and Stillbirth, Yet Still Born (PILC, 2000). She is also on the Board of the Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death Alliance ( and is regularly invited to write articles for professional periodicals and parent support materials.

Copyright © Mara Stein and Deborah Davis. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.