ten ways to help a friend who experiences a premature birth

Apparently it’s World Prematurity Day. I had a preemie myself.  Which makes me a bit of a reluctant expert on the subject.

A little backstory. W was born at 35 weeks due to me having preeclampsia. He was 4 lb 11 oz and 18 and 3/4″ long. He was, thankfully, not a NICU baby who had to spend extended time in the hospital. But he did spend an extra night away from us due to jaundice. Being premature, he was admitted to the (amazing) LeBonheur Children’s Hospital at a week old for some scary breathing difficulties.IMG_4872

The first year of our life with W was shaped by saying “adjusted age” to every doctor or lactation professional we met. We had to explain “but he was born early” to strangers who asked his age in the grocery store.

We were so incredibly thankful that W’s prematurity did not mean severe health problems. Not every mom of a preemie can be so lucky. I didn’t have to let my baby spend his first weeks in the hospital away from us. I didn’t have to pray daily for him to learn to eat or breath and hope that each day was a “good day” for him.

We were lucky, and we know it.

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No one prepares to have a preemie. (Save for some early high risk pregnancies and those with multiples.) So help your friend in a way you’d help someone who has had something unexpected surprise them- not just in the way you’d help with a newborn.  Honestly, it’s hard to know the right thing to do when a friend’s baby shows up early.

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Here are 10 practical tips from this mom of a preemie to help you when aiding a friend who experiences a premature delivery:

  1. Give them clothes in preemie sizes. This seems simple, but we didn’t have a single article of clothing for W. Partially because we hadn’t actually purchased any yet.  When I was put on bed rest, all of the to-dos were pushed down to the bottom of the list. My health was too fragile to allow for a Target shopping trip, and preemie clothes are not easy to find. It sounds simple, but when someone gave me a preemie sized outfit, it made me cry tears of joy.
  2. Help them with meals. Obviously this is important when anyone has a baby. A meal is the best way to show love. But the mom of a preemie has extra stressors financially due to the early delivery. A meal (or a gift certificate to a restaurant that sells takeout) is incredibly useful.
  3. Keep your sick children (and selves) at home. W was born in January, at the height of cold and flu season. In preemie world that means at the height of RSV season. That’s a simple sniffle for an adult, but for a premature infant, the virus can mean death. Yes, it’s that serious. Even if you think “it’s just allergies”, stay home. Send your friend a text requesting all the newborn pictures they can stand to send in lieu of a visit if you’re under the weather. I have a feeling your friend will be happy to send you an avalanche of photos.
  4. Respect their wishes. They may want their baby to he held at a 45 degree angle at all times. It might sound crazy. Just do it. The most laid back of parents will have to modify their parenting practices if raising a premature infant. Though I had 10+ years of childcare experience under my belt, none of it was dealing with a child who occasionally stopped breathing while he ate.  I had to do a few crazy new-mom things I swore I would never do, but it was more important to keep my fragile infant healthy.
  5. If you’re in a position to help financially, understand that your friend was not expecting to begin her maternity leave earlier than planned and may be strapped financially. I was put on bedrest at 32 weeks and delivered at 35. I was not prepared for the financial strain that a premature birth caused. We had my maternity leave budgeted to the penny. Adding a few extra weeks wasn’t in the budget. Thankfully we had the help of family and a very generous boss who saw that we were taken care of. Many parents of preemies have weeks of hospital trips to make, time away from work, and meals at fast food restaurants. A gas card for those dealing with a NICU baby or extra preemie sized diapers can go a long way in helping a friend when they’re beyond stressed about their finances.
  6. Understand that the rules are completely different for the first year of a preemie’s life. Extend grace to your friend by not comparing their child to other friend’s babies. I made great friends with the ladies in our natural birthing class and met with them a few times in W’s first year. My friend Amanda from birth class did a wonderful job of not comparing W’s development to her son’s, even though they were born 5 days apart. She was thoughtful to keep it in perspective that my child’s development for the first year was on a different schedule.  She never made me worry that my child wasn’t developing properly.
  7. Encourage your friend because likely she has had a trauma during the birth of her child. No matter what type of birth she planned, she probably didn’t get to have the birth she hoped for. The pain of a traumatic birth is real and chances are she had to experience some interventions that she didn’t want. Offer a listening ear. Offer the warmth of understanding to her.
  8. Offer compassion since likely every parenting choice they made is thrown out the window. I wanted to avoid antibiotics in W’s first year. But he needed 24 hours of IV antibiotics in his first day due to his prematurity. I wanted to exclusively breastfeed, but I wasn’t able to produce enough and W wasn’t able to remove enough milk. He had to drink formula. I wanted to cloth diaper exclusively, but W was too small to wear our cloth diapers until he was almost four months old.  I’m thankful for people who reminded me that it was all going to be ok.
  9.  Encourage babywearing. Once your friend can safely babywear (meaning that their baby is not experiencing health issues and is at a weight recommended by their wrap or carrier’s manufacturer instructions) encourage them to wear their baby. The feeling of your child who should have been in utero for another few weeks suddenly being taken away from your body is a tough feeling.  In many cases, a mother and baby are separated within minutes of birth and have no reunion in sight for several days or weeks.  The human who lived inside of you for 7 or 8 months is suddenly not near. It doesn’t feel right.  It’s horrible. Encourage your friend to wear their baby skin-to-skin when possible and in a carrier when they are around the house or in public. Public babywearing was my personal trick for avoiding the well-meaning germ-riddled touchers in public places.  Finding her local BWI chapter is a great place to start.
  10. Hug your friend and offer them prayers. Having a premature baby is hard. There are moments of blaming ourselves as parents for something we’ve done. Panic about how to care for an infant half the size of most newborns. Fear about our baby’s health. And multiplied stress above and beyond having a healthy, full-term infant. Give your fiends the understanding and caring they most likely need so very much.

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I hope you never need to use this list. I hope that someday we find a way for babies to reside peacefully in their mother’s bellies until 40 weeks gestation. But if you know of someone who has recently faced a premature birth, please circulate this information amongst their friends and family. It’s hard to know how to help a friend in this circumstance, but hopefully by being a well-informed friend, you can be exactly what your friend needs in the weeks following a premature birth. IMG_4873

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