Approximately 1 in 10 babies are born prematurely in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes, preterm labor and premature birth can still occur even if parents do everything right during their pregnancy.
A baby is considered premature if they are born anywhere before 37 weeks, however not all premature newborns need to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Premature babies born at 35-36 weeks are assessed at birth for their stability to determine their needs — if they can remain with their mother in the newborn nursery or need to receive care in the NICU.
According to Benjamin Harding, MD, a neonatologist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, babies born less than 35 weeks will generally require some time in the NICU — anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on their prematurity.
“It can be a fairly scary and stressful time for parents,” Harding says. “Usually everybody only expects to be happy when they have a baby, but there can be disappointment and fear based on the uncertainty of what prematurity means for their child and the fact that they won’t have the typical experience most expect with a healthy term newborn.”
Harding explains that mothers may unfortunately also feel guilt over why their baby was born prematurely, wondering if they did something to cause the preterm birth or general sadness by being separated from the infant.
“Parents should know that premature birth is almost never the result of something mothers do or don’t do,” he says. “They should feel allowed to be sad but shouldn’t blame themselves.
Harding offers tips to help parents deal with the emotional stress of having a premature baby who needs care in the NICU.
Communication and information
If your child is in the NICU, parents should build communication with the team caring for their child. Additionally, Harding recommends parents focus on gathering the information they need to ease some of the uncertainties. He says doctors will give routine updates to parents, but parents should feel free to ask questions at any time.
“Ask questions like, ‘Is my baby getting better?’ ‘What are the next short-term goals?’ ‘What are the biggest current issues?” he says. It’s essential to ask for clarification from your child’s care team if you have unresolved questions.
Because there are generally many people involved in caring for a baby in the NICU, Harding says getting to know the rest of the team and their roles may help ease stress. “If possible, find a nurse you feel comfortable with who can potentially be your baby’s ‘primary nurse’ — some who can be a constant person during your baby’s stay,” he says.
Create a balanced routine to be with your baby
Schedule routine times during your day or week to see your baby. Harding also suggests asking the care team how you can help care for your child — whether by providing breastmilk, changing a diaper, or soothing them.
Harding also recommends finding other ways to bond with your baby in your realm of control — for example, choosing books to read to them or together as a family.
If your home is far from the hospital, the social work team can often connect parents with resources — meal vouchers, transportation vouchers, temporary housing, etc.
Don’t forget to celebrate
“It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sadness or stress of your child being premature, but try and celebrate every positive moment as well,” Harding says.
Journal about your baby’s growth and improvements, and set short-term goals you can watch your baby achieve — scrapbook about their time in the NICU. Remember to take photos and videos of them growing.
Harding also sees parents celebrating holidays with their babies, such as dressing them up in the autumn or at Easter, taking Christmas photos with them, celebrating their monthly birth anniversaries, and more.
Surround yourself with those who provide positive and sympathetic support
It’s important to accept help and support from family members or friends who can ease the routine burdens of your life or provide emotional support. However, Harding warns that there may be challenges trying to explain everything going on with your baby to others — whether family members or friends — simply because of the complexity and uniqueness of the situation.
“Not everyone knows what to say to parents with a premature child,” he says. “Sometimes parents can be given unsolicited advice or asked difficult questions, causing parents to worry more than they need to.’”
Remember that prematurity can be a complex issue. Looking for people to lean on who have had similar experiences in the past can be very helpful, such as other parents of babies in the NICU with you, prematurity support groups, etc.
Take time for yourself
“The more tired you are, the more difficult and frustrating the whole situation can seem, especially for parents who have many other responsibilities such as kids at home,” Harding says.
“Being with your newborn baby is a primal instinct for parents,” he says. “But it’s also important for parents to take breaks from the hospital and make sure they take care of their other needs as well.”
Generally, after the first several weeks of adjustment, as your baby gets bigger, there are fewer challenges and having a premature infant may get easier to cope with. The care team for your baby, including physicians, nursing staff, and others, are there to support you and your child throughout this uncertain time.