Advice for Comforting Parents of Preemies: Respect their Feelings

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My sister is a mother of a girl who was born prematurely. I guess my sister is what you might call a preemie parent. I’m pleased to say that the little girl is growing normally and she is a healthy and happy baby, but the experience that my sister and her husband shared is one shared by many preemie parents. I’d like to tell of their experience with the hope that it will help future preemie parents.

The Parental Impact of Premature Birth

When you realized that your baby had decided to enter your world way ahead of schedule your initial feeling was concern, which quickly changed into fear and panic. The final month of pregnancy, even under normal conditions, is fraught with anxiety for both parents, but especially the mother. As a father, my brother-in-law was busy with work and not thinking about the baby 24/7. My sister, on the other hand, was becoming a mother, and worried about every cramp or kick.

The birth went quickly. The shock of seeing their girl, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and looking very frail, removed any joy from the experience, replacing it instead with conflicting emotions of anger about their circumstance and worry over their daughters future health or worse, her survival.

There was jealousy as well. It sounds silly now, but at the time my sister was envious of those new parents who were joyful as family and friends came to visit the newborn while her and her husband, and concerned family members, were milling about the intensive care nursery hoping for the best and expecting the worst. It sounds almost normal to say “our baby was born premature” as though it were a small kink in the general plan. The fact was that the baby was very sick and struggling to survive.

It took three months in the hospital before the crisis had passed and their daughter could come home. She was small, but had survived and was healthy. She needed special treatment for a while, and frequent trips to the outpatient clinic, but she was progressing. Friends and relatives did come and visit them with well wishes and gifts for the girl, but it was not the joyful experience that new parents share with friends. The visits were more like sick-room visits filled with concerned and awkward conversations.

My sister and her husband, while very happy about their daughter’s progress, felt cheated whenever they saw other parents in the neighborhood pushing their sit and stand stroller down the sidewalk. In time, their daughter’s growth caught up with her age, and her development schedule became that of a normal full term baby. The physical, psychological, and emotional crisis was over, and my sister and her husband became a normal young family with a healthy new baby.

Comforting the Preemie Parent

The little girl is now two years old, well and healthy. Only those who knew them during their period of crisis would even suspect that she was at one time a preemie at risk. My sister can’t, however, forget her feelings during those days of crisis. It has enhanced her appreciation for the miracle of her daughter, and given her a vivid understanding of how other parents with preemies feel, and how well-meaning people treat them. I’m reminded of some of the things said to my sister during the crisis period. If you have friends that are recent preemie parents, I hope that you’ll think about the following statements before offering advice or comfort to them.

Never quote survival statistics to a preemie parent. A well-meaning friend of my sister told her that “Preemies are born all the time and most of them grow up just fine”. That must have sounded supportive and comforting to her friend, but my sister’s thoughts were “…and what about the rest?”

Another friend, who visited my sister while the baby was still in intensive care said, “At least, while the baby is in the hospital, you’ll get a chance to rest here at home”. This seems to make sense but the end of that sentence should have been, “…you’ll get a chance to stay at home and worry yourself sick”.

When the baby is home and making developmental progress toward normalcy, which does take time, don’t comment on the child’s delayed development. Comments like, “She hasn’t started crawling yet?” and “Mary’s daughter was walking at ten months,” really don’t help. Try something more like, “She looks well and healthy. I’m so happy for you”. Parents of preemies have enough worry roaming around in their heads. They don’t need comparisons or folklore advice. Offer positive comments only.

Managing the Hospital Stay

If you are new parents of a premature child, don’t let events control you. While your child is in the neonatal intensive care unit of the hospital, become part of the medical team. Get a clear description from the neonatologist about the plan for caring for your child, and how you can be involved. Request reading materials that can help you to provide the care needed when the baby comes home. Demand maximum physical access to the child when possible. Once the baby is released from the hospital, be pro-active with your pediatrician. Set up a regular schedule of visits. Relax a bit. The worst is over. It’s time to enjoy your new baby.

The guest post is from Amy Brown, an editor of Livesnet created to help parents find the right baby products for kids and give them advice on everything from pregnancy. Read her hot article on booster seats for children.