{Professional Insight} Parenting Through the NICU and Beyond

July 30, 2014


The parents of the premature child face a host of challenges. From time on bed rest to a fast track of research and education as to how to assure the survival of and provision for an early arrival. From scrutinizing doctors’ reports to learning to read the infant’s cues and comfort ranges, you are invited to showing up in real time as never before.

Some preemies will be born with developmental, sensory or physical challenges and may need the help of occupational, physical, or speech therapists in equipping them for the world and the many vicissitudes of living here. Parents will inevitably learn from and work alongside these professionals, when utilized. Some may be extraordinarily intelligent or gifted, as was Einstein or Churchill, Darwin or Newton, and come into the world in a hurry with an insatiable energy for life and all they were born to accomplish here. Siblings may feel some loss of both parents’ abiding presence and attention during hospital stays and through transition home.

The mission of ensuring the best for a new arrival to the NICU and life beyond is all consuming, eclipsing daily life and its demands (though they fail to disappear). Parenting the premature child and his siblings is at once daunting and a privilege.

Before anything, parents must first acknowledge and settle into their own courage and resilience, endurance and strengths, those innate and those built in the last days, weeks, months and, possibly, years. Take confidence in your intuition and in your own sense of your child.

Though it can fall to the bottom of the list early on, parents must take time to care for and rejuvenate themselves individually, in whatever way is practical. Be creative! Likewise, time stolen for and with each other to explore and relax will reward you manyfold with a healthy and joyful relationship from which to parent. Don’t skip this … ever.

Children (and adults, for that matter) benefit from an attuned and caring environment in which the individual is respected, seen, and heard. Really.

Howard Glasser’s Nurtured Heart Approach® supports these tenets in organizing the parent’s energy to creatively notice and to radically appreciate the child in his every day world, highlighting his successes and accomplishments from dawn to dusk. Concomitant with this focus and emphasis on the child’s goodness and his navigation of neutral behaviors is a staunch refusal to give parental energy to negative behaviors. Through the drawing of clear boundaries and their enforcement with gentle and steady consistency, all the while holding for the child a vision of his next success, parents guide children in a martial arts like fashion, to more positive patterns of thinking and behavior.

Parenting through the NICU gives you a head start in fine tuning your awareness of your child. Put to work in the everyday arena of home or carpool, mealtime or the trajectory to bedtime, specific and detailed sightings of your child exercising her strengths can be gathered and reported throughout the day. She, after all, loves your attention more than anything and will go to lengths to find it, even if that means acting out. In and through your attention, given wholly and freely to a genial choreography of these sightings, you have the opportunity to lead your child to a growing focus on her successes.

In energizing your awareness and your heart to creatively notice and celebrate the fine points of your child’s daily experience of the world and tiny victories, maintaining clear limits and reducing energy given to negative behaviors, you will tip the energetic balance in favor of supporting the emergence of your child’s goodness and strengths. A growing focus on these strengths and tiny successes can build her sense of herself and a healthy esteem, potentiating her energy for life and expanding her reach and comfort in the world. As you align your energies with the qualities of life you want to foster and encourage in your home and children, you lead the family into the living of individual greatness and the building of family values.

Above all, enjoy your child! She will instantly pick up on this and join with you in building a relationship you’ll treasure for a lifetime. Stay curious. Take the time to delight in the world together … take an extra detour to inspect a turtle alongside a creek, share a story of your own childhood, follow a butterfly or listen to ideas of building a fort in the backyard. After all, there is nothing more important.


mary duncanMary McKay Duncan, LCSW is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in Austin. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and with parents, collaborating closely for the child. As a certified Nurtured Heart Approach® trainer, she incorporates this work with psychodynamic, cognitive, solution focused, and humanistic approaches. Her areas of focus include working with gifted or intense children and those dealing with anxiety, willfulness, developmental, behavioral or attentional issues.