Supporting parents of premature babies

Being the parents of a premature baby can be very stressful. Mums and dads of premature babies often go through a lot of emotional ups and downs in the early weeks and months of their babies’ lives.

When they get practical help and emotional support from family and friends, parents often cope a lot better with the experience. And when they’re managing well, they’re better able to look after their babies.

Here’s how you can help.

1. Celebrate as you normally would when a baby is born

Offer congratulations, send a card or flowers, and ring the new parents. By celebrating the birth of their baby in this way, you’re helping them celebrate as well. Give a gift, if this is what you’d normally do. Small gifts for the parents can help them feel nurtured too.

If you’re thinking of giving clothes for the baby, make sure they’re very easy to put on and take off – loose necklines and armholes are good. Size 00000 clothes can also be useful, because many parents won’t have bought these smaller sizes. Baby clothes for later are wonderful, because they’ll help the parents think about the future, when their child is at home.

Another gift could be a voucher for hospital parking, or for a restaurant close to the hospital so that parents can have a meal and some time together but not be far away from their baby.

A lot of people sent flowers in the first few days after the birth. Most premmies spend at least two weeks in hospital or more, so it’s nice to get flowers or a gift a bit later. It’s a nice surprise and encouraging along the long journey.
– Mother of 35-week premature baby

2. Offer practical help

Parents will be visiting the hospital as often and for as long as they can for days, weeks or months to come. This means that the normal chores of everyday life are hard to fit in or don’t get done, which can be stressful.

You could offer to mow the lawn, walk the dog, prepare meals, do the weekly shopping, take older siblings to kinder or school or look after the other children in the evening. Giving parents a lift to the hospital can be a big help too, because parking and transport can be very expensive.

3. Support parents in whatever way they need

It’s OK to ask parents what they need. Some parents want to shut themselves off and cope with the situation alone or with a few close friends and family. Respect their wishes, but at the same time let them know that you’re thinking of them. You could try to offer help at different times.

Some parents need lots of people around for support. These parents might love having company at the hospital. You could offer to drive, have lunch or just sit with them. Some parents want to talk about things other than the baby. Parents’ needs can change as their baby grows and changes.

I found the weeks my baby was in hospital a very lonely time. The friends who helped me most were those who offered specific things. They said things like, ‘I’ll drive you into the hospital tomorrow and stay with you for the day’, or ‘I’ll meet you there and we’ll have a bite of lunch together’. The friends who said, ‘Let me know if I can do anything’ didn’t help so much. They were just as sincere, but it was just easier if they offered something specific.
– Mother of a 28-week premature baby

4. Stay in touch with parents

A text message, an email, a quick phone call or voice message, or even an old-fashioned card in the mail – these are simple ways to let parents know you’re thinking of them. They help parents feel supported and remembered.

Try to understand how stressed the parents are and avoid judging them if they forget a birthday, can’t get to a family gathering, or take less interest in what’s happening in your life. It’s not that they don’t care – it’s just that right now, all their energy and focus is on their baby.

When you feel up to it, encourage loved ones to visit you at hospital. It’s good to have some time out, fresh air and different conversation, because the hospital becomes your life. 
– Mother of 27-week premature baby

5. Say positive things about the baby

Avoid talking about setbacks that might happen or challenges that the baby could face, unless the parents bring it up with you. Avoid giving advice about the baby or comparing the parents’ experience with the experiences of other parents or children. Say positive things instead. For example, ‘She’s growing fast already’, or ‘He’s strong like his mum’.

6. Don’t expect to cuddle the baby

Premature babies are very sensitive to touch, noise, infection and other things in their environment, so cuddling or touching is often limited or not allowed. Parents can also be very protective of their premature babies.

You might not even be able to see the baby, because there are usually limits on the number of visitors allowed at a time. Often, it’s only two. Usually only family is allowed – sometimes this is only the baby’s parents. Each hospital has its own set of rules. Instead, you could ask to see some photos of the baby (if the parent feels up to sharing them) or have a coffee with the parents at the hospital café.

Don’t be surprised if you still can’t have a good cuddle when the baby goes home. Premature babies can be easily overwhelmed, and many still need to be protected from too much handling and too many new people for some time.

If you’re sick, you should avoid visiting a family with a baby in the NICU or SCU. Premature babies can get illnesses and infections very easily.

7. Listen to parents

Parents are likely to have mixed and powerful feelings about their premature baby and their experiences of the birth or hospital. These might not surface for weeks, months or even years.

Be open, let them talk and avoid giving advice unless it’s asked for. Avoid comparing them with other parents who’ve had a hard time and try not to be too negative or too positive. This can be tricky, but if you listen more than talk and follow the lead of the premature baby’s parents, you’re more likely to be helpful.

8. Keep offering help after the baby comes home

Your family member or friend might be tied to the house for some weeks once the baby comes home. Having someone organise shopping or kinder and school runs can really help.