Parenting in the NICU - a quick look

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Learning about the NICU and ways of helping and bonding with your preemie can help you manage some of the stress and uncertainty associated with a preterm birth.


Finding special ways to connect & understand preterm birth

The joy of childbirth is often short-lived for parents of preterm babies. Isolation from your newborn, extended hospital stays, and the uncertainty associated with medical procedures, takes a massive emotional and physical toll. This section has been created to help you navigate your way through some tough times. It covers everything from family-centred care, tips on how to bond with your preemie, helping out in the NICU, what to bring, to learning to read your prem's body language


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Supportive Grandparents, family & friends

A preterm birth doesn’t just affect the mother and father of the baby but it can have an emotional impact on grandparents, extended family, and friends.

Most direct family members and extended family and friend want to be supportive of a new born child. When it comes to having preemies it is a little tougher for the parents and it is important for all involoved to be supportive as possible can during this time. Many people express not being sure what to do, the following article gives a few ideas but you will know your daughter, son, friend and will probably have some good ideas on ways to be supportive.

How to Help

Other parents have suggested these few things:

  • Offer a hug or any sign on comfort & love
  • Offer to be the communicator: find out who parents what to share information with and what information they want to share.
  • Console & reassure mothers: often mothers feel guilty that their baby was born preterm but in many instances the cause is unknown and there was nothing she could do. Reassure her of this whenever she needs to hear it.
  • Offer to spend time with their other children if they have them. Babysitting during hospital visitations or running them to kinder or school can be a great relief for parents. Siblings can sometimes feel isolated, anxious, and insecure. Make them feel special; take them to the movies, shopping, park, zoo etc.
  • Offer with household chores, run errands, do the groceries, cook dinner, clean the house
  • Help let others know how they can help
  • Acknowledge the preterm birth as you would other births, such as send flowers, buy something for the baby
  • Be patient and tolerant; emotions will no doubt be running high and parents are probably exhausted, so try not to get offended if parents don’t return calls, don’t feel like talking, or don’t want to share certain things with you.
  • Only get involved in discussions with nurses and doctors if the parents want you to
  • Often just listening is an important way to let parents vent, try to do so without judgement and without interrupting.
  • Suggest questions to ask nurse & doctors if parents seem to shocked, tired, or unable to think clearly.
  • Be empathetic, it’s a difficult situation and people like to know you are trying to understand how they feel and what they are going through
  • Find something positive to point out, such as hair colour, fighting spirit, cute toes, caring staff etc.
  • Praise parents for their efforts, strength, and fortitude.
  • Encourage parents to look after themself, such as eating habits, sleep, exercise etc.
  • Suggest talking with a professional about coping, do this in a supportive way, not as an attack on their ability to deal with stress.
  • If there’s a setback, let parents express their frustration and fear but also help point out their preemie’s successes and battles they have already won.
  • Offer to stay with them at the NICU, sometimes parents spend hours by themselves, which can be lonely and fears may seem worse if they are unable to talk about them. If they don’t want you there don’t be offended, everyone has their own way of dealing with things, respect their space and needs.
  • Try to be there when you’re needed. Parents may ask you to be around during a surgery or other procedures, or they want you to take photos, or just be around.
  • Keep in touch by leaving a message, sending a text, just letting them know you’re thinking of them and care.

Try not to ask if everything is “all right”; there is always something that is not right — often it’s just the mere fact that the baby is still hospitalized. They will provide information when they are ready to share it. Often, parents will only tell you that it’s been a bad day. Respect the fact that they do not wish to rehash the painful event again.

Things you shouldn’t do

Things that may NOT be helpful include:

  • Making mothers feel guilty about something they did or didn’t do, suggesting it is their fault their baby was born prematurely.
  • Take over decision making. Remember it is not your baby and even if you don’t agree on certain things it is not decision to make. Provide your opinion only if asked to do so.
  • Don’t verbalise your concern if you think they baby won’t make it. It isn’t helpful and only causes extra distress for parents
  • Don’t say you can always try for another baby if preemie is very unwell or dying. It suggests a total rejection of their baby and shows a lack of sympathy
  • Don’t suggest it’s a good time to catch up on and get extra sleep before preemie comes home. The stress and worry involved in having a baby in the NICU means sleeping is often difficult and they are likely exhausted from all the worry even if they get a full night sleep.
  • Don’t second guess the medical staff, parents need to form a relationship of trust with the people caring for their preemie baby.
  • Don’t talk about their baby being in pain etc as this can exacerbate feelings of helpless and guilt.
  • Don’t attribute mothers reaction to hormones. No doubt hormones are out of kilter but that is not the main reason for distress and being upset.
  • Don’t ask when preemie baby is coming home. Usually parents won’t know exactly when this will be and often there can be setbacks that interfere with coming home.


Technical Reference List

Wechsler Linden, D., Trenti Paroli, E., & Wechsler Doron, M. (2000). Preemies: The essential guide for parents of premature babies. New York: Pocket Book.
Zaichkin, J. (2009). Newborn Intensive Care: what every parent needs to know (3rd ed.). MI: Sheridan Books.
Meriter Foundation:



AlbertEinstein_iconOne of the greatest minds in history, Albert Einstein was born preterm.

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Preemie, Premmie, or Prem?

Most babies spend between 38 and 42 weeks in their mother’s uterus. So, technically a preterm birth, preemie, premmie, or prem, is an infant who is born less than 37 completed gestational weeks. 

Read More: Defining Preterm birth



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