How separation policies affect fathers of newborns

How does a separation policy in the neonatal ward affect your role as a father of a preterm newborn? This is what we asked Vilni Verner Holst Bloch. Due to the preterm birth of his daughter, Vilni has been active in the Norwegian parent organisation Prematurforeningen for a long time and is also a long-standing member of the EFCNI network. The current separation policies which have been introduced in hospitals worldwide to protect clinical staff and patients from contracting COVID-19, remind him of the time when he himself was separated from his daughter – yet back then for other reasons. In this interview, he recalls the especially challenging moments of that time and gives advice to fathers and partners who currently find themselves in a similar situation due to the visitation restrictions.

Question: Do you recall the situation when you and your partner became parents to a preterm baby?

Vilni Verner Holst Bloch: Although this is now more than ten years ago, I still remember everything very clearly. My partner told she was tired and felt some pain, which was rather unusual of her. So, I suggested her to lay down and rest a little, thinking that it was just some normal stress and anxiety. I was working as a public servant and had a 9-year-old son from a previous relationship. My son was born two weeks after the term date, he was a big baby delivered by acute caesarean section. I had never imagined that the birth of my second child could be similarly complicated, what are the odds for that? This time my daughter was born in week 26. In fact, the chance of that is about 3.5 in 100, and the chance of being born in gestational week 42– so when my son was born – or more is also about 3.5.

Your full-time job and the distance to the hospital were two major obstacles to being with your partner and daughter in the NICU. How did the separation affect you in your role as father and partner?

Being separated from our tiny baby and my partner, while having to go to work and look after my son was stressful. I was also very frustrated that I was not able to be at the hospital with together with my partner and our baby, due to work and the distance to the hospital. We live three hours from the NICU, depending on means of transport and time (rush hour). Having a small kid that also needed care, and no family around for help, it was impossible to stay as much as I wanted in the hospital. This became really challenging as my partner and our baby had to stay in hospital for several months. Luckily, my employer was very flexible, so I could take as many days off with payment as the rules could be stretched. I remember that doing kangaroo care was a very joyful moment, also giving relief to the mother. At the same time, it also became a dilemma, as the hours for kangaroo care were often limited due to other circumstances at the hospital.

Family time: kangarooing in the NICU; © Vilni Verner Holst Bloch

“Being separated from your child will probably be the toughest time in your life. Remember, you are the only and the best father for your child.”

What was the biggest challenge caused by this separation, emotionally and in practical terms?

As days becomes weeks, and weeks becomes months, you will learn a lot about the tiny life you have on your chest. You will learn to read the signs of when your baby feels comfortable and when not. You will probably get a lot of different information at the same time, often even contradicting messages! I can only advice you to trust in your capabilities as your baby’s care giver, and do not ever stop asking for information. You’re under stress so your memory will most probably struggle to remember everything. Therefore, ask for written information, so you can digest it in calmer moments. Accept your feelings, as fathers we are often affected by separation and a lack of possibilities to be there for our child and partner. Be aware of signs of depression, fatigue and a feeling of helplessness.

Based on your personal experience, is there anything you would like to pass on to fathers who are or were separated from their child due to the pandemic?

Being separated from your child will probably be the toughest time in your life. It might feel like an emotional rollercoaster, and you might feel that you are second to everybody else when it comes to care for your baby. If possible, ask for help from family, friends, and healthcare professionals, and get in touch with other fathers who have experienced the same. Do not ever stop talking about how you feel and what concerns you, and remember you are the only and the best father for your child.

Thank you, for your time and for sharing this with us.

Vilni Verner Holst Bloch
Prematurforeningen, Norway
Father of a daughter born at 26 weeks