NICU Dad Discussions Part I: 10 Things NICU Dads Need to Know

June 3, 2019
Alex zavala the NICU dad

This is part one of a four-part series created especially for NICU dads, by NICU dads. Read part two: Rad White and the NICU Beard Club, part three: Micro Preemie Dad Jonathan Hayhurst and part four: Grief and Celebration with Erik Velez.

by Alex Zavala

Before I became a NICU dad myself, I knew people who had children in the NICU, but I never really understood what that really meant. I knew babies that needed surgery or babies who were not doing too well went to the NICU. What I never really thought about was the NICU experience, especially through a dad’s perspective. 

Now having gone through our own 67-day NICU stay, there are several things I wish I had known about being a NICU dad. I can only speak from my experience, but I’m sure I’m not alone. 

LISTEN: Alex Zavala shares his story in episodes one and two of the NICU Dad Discussions podcast

10 things NICU dads need to know

  1. No more tough guy. I wish I had known that no matter how much of a tough guy I thought I had been my entire life, it was all about to end. When I walked in that room and saw my little 2lb 5oz daughter lying in that isolette, all the tough guy went out the window. She was the tiniest thing I had ever seen. She had so many tubes coming out of her, machines flashing and beeping. I cried like a baby! It would not be the last time.
  2. You’ll have to decide who to be with. I wish I had known that after dealing with the delivery of our preemie daughter at 27 weeks, I would have to make the gut-wrenching decision of where to go and who to be with. My wife was in one hospital recovering from a c-section. Our oldest daughter was at Grandma’s. And then there was our new baby in the NICU at another hospital. Every day I would have to make this decision until my wife was discharged from her hospital.
  3. You might spend more time with baby than mom does. I wish I had known that I would be the one spending the most time with the baby in the beginning. I felt a little guilty, but I had to be there to get as much information about our daughter’s condition. There would be a trade-off though. Mommy got to hold the baby first.
  4. Rest is necessary. I wish I would have listened to everyone when they told me to get some sleep. I thought if my wife was up, I had to be up. If I was with the baby, I had to watch the monitors. If I was with our oldest daughter, I had to give her as much quality time as I could. What I didn’t realize was that by not getting the rest I needed, I was not going to be even close to my best when everyone was depending on me. I was nurse, chauffeur, secretary, husband, dad, chef and still trying to run our small family business. I was in danger of burnout.
  5. For NICU dads, holding your baby takes on a whole new meaning.I wish I would have known that when a NICU Dad holds his baby, it is really something special. We may have to wait days, wanting nothing more than to just hold them, and we can’t. But I have to think it just makes it that much more special.
  6. Feeding your NICU baby is no joke.I wish I would have known that feeding our baby was going to be the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life! Those first feedings were a nightmare. We would feed our baby and watch the monitors the entire time to ensure she was breathing and not choking. In the early days it was incredibly stressful!
  7. The NICU staff will become your family.I wish I would have known that our NICU staff would become part of our family. It is impossible to put into words what these people mean to us. They are there for all of the milestones. They are there for our highs and lows. They see us laugh and cry. They are there when a professional photographer comes in to take family photos and your wife is crying because your 9-year-old daughter refuses to be in the pictures. (Never underestimate how much the NICU impact everyfamily member!) They see these things and they act like it’s all no big deal. This is normal NICU life.
  8. Taking your baby home is bittersweet.I wish I would have known that after counting down the days to when we would be able to take our baby home, we almost didn’t want to. During our 67-day stay, we had our NICU staff for support. But our baby had exceeded all expectations and was released early. We weren’t ready! We had been in this NICU marathon for more than two months. Who had time to prepare? Plus, you mean we have to take this baby home and take care of her, without monitors? We were so nervous and scared.
  9. You learn a LOT of medical info.I wish I would have known that I would become a second-year med student. Spending so much time in the NICU, we immersed ourselves in information and medical lingo. They always tell NICU dads to not stare at the monitors. Good luck! That’s all you do. I knew what every beep and flash meant. I knew if something went haywire, just check the baby. If she’s breathing and the monitor says she’s not, it’s likely a lead came off. Since our NICU stay, I’ve had to be in the hospital for a sick grandmother, who has since passed, but while I was there, I had to speak to the nurses, and they asked if I was in the medical field. I said no. I’m a NICU Dad!
  10. The journey doesn’t end when you leave the NICU.Finally, I wish I would have known that just because you leave the NICU, it’s not over. While in the NICU, we saw families that would leave and some that would have to come back. Many NICU babies need to have surgeries while in the NICU or after they have already been home. We were fortunate that our daughter made it through the NICU surgery-free, but since our NICU stay, she’s had a hernia surgery and a heart procedure to close a patent ductus arteriosus (PDA).
Alex zavala the NICU dad

After we came home, our daughter also required physical therapy. We had been so far ahead of the curve in the NICU that I was in a bit of denial. It took me a while before I finally saw what everyone else had already been seeing. Of course she crushed all her therapies! But I wish I had known that many preemies require physical therapy, occupational therapy and struggle with other invisible disabilities long after they are discharged.

I hope these things help some of the new NICU dads and put a smile on the faces of the seasoned NICU dads. If you can think of any I forgot, please share! 

Announcing NICU Dad Discussions, an all new podcast created for NICU dads, by NICU dads! Listen today!

About Alex Zavala

Alex Zavala is a small business owner in Austin, TX, father to two preemie girls: Mia (30wks) and Emerson (27wks) and husband to beautiful wife Jenn. Alex is passionate about NICU family support and the Zavala family serves as ambassadors for several organizations.