How Can I Help? Twenty Do's and Don'ts When Talking to Parents of a Preemie Baby

Advice on what to say and do(and avoid!) when your friend or relative has a baby in Neonatal Intensive Care Hospital (NICU).

By Menetra D. Hathorn

What's more disheartening is that even after we go through all of the explanations, it often seems that the listener's response is still a perpetration of some myth or misperception about preemies. Perhaps the most popular one is, "How much does she have to weigh before she can come home? 4 pounds?" I heard this several dozen times while my daughter Rayven was in the hospital. However, she spent the first three moths of her hospital stay on a ventilator (a breathing machine). This meant she was incapable of breathing or eating on her own. So, in our case, it didn't matter if Rayven weighed 4 pounds or 14 pounds. She wasn't coming home any time soon!

Please don't fall into this trap. It took all I had not to roll my eyes and lecture my inquirer. I felt that this is only one of the many pitfalls to be avoided. Because there are so many, I have included a long list of do's and don'ts to help you.

1. Don't judge the parent's reactions. There is no right or wrong way to deal with a premature birth.

2. Don't compare the baby's needs to those of a full-term baby OR to other preemies.

3. Don't just say "Call me if you need something." Do something! You can provide dinners, do yard work, go grocery shopping, offer to drive them to the hospital, and/or clean their house.

4. Be available when parents ask for help. If we ask for help, that means we needed it a long time ago.

5. Don't discuss the possibility of death or severe complications unless the parents initiate it.

6. Be inconvenienced. Helping someone should not always be bound by our comfort zones and busy schedules.

7. Buy appropriate gifts for the family, such as rolls of quarters, snacks, magazines, photo albums, journals, preemie record books, and gift cards.

8. Support and praise a mother who is pumping breast milk during the baby's hospitalization. It is very difficult to maintain a milk supply when the baby is unable to nurse directly from the breast.

9. Baby-sit free of charge if the parents have older children. You can do this so parents can visit the hospital together or go out on a date.

10. When asking about the baby's progress, always listen carefully to the parent's response. Then, the next time you speak with them, refer back to the last thing they told you.

11. Offer encouragement during setbacks and gently remind parents of previous obstacles the baby has overcome.

12. Don't ask "when is she coming home?" The parents want eth baby to come home too, but there are no quick fixes in the NICU. Besides, they will let everyone know when the time finally comes!

13. Don't be fooled by smiling faces. Just because the parents are smiling doesn't mean everything is going well.

14. Don't offer too much unsolicited advice.

15. Show interest in the baby and the parents throughout the hospitalization and after the baby has been home a while.

16. Make sincere compliments about the baby whenever you're visiting the hospital or looking at photos.

17. Don't compare their experience with someone else's hospitalization.

18. Offer a hug when the parents are expressing grief.

19. Avoid discussing disappointing news or concerns within hearing distance of older siblings. The older children are suffering as well.

20. Nicely recommend that counseling be sought when parents show signs of losing control. Offer a listening ear.

If you have already done a few of these "don'ts", try not to worry about it too much. Most parents understand that it's difficult for you to know exactly what to say and do.

Menetra D. Hathorn is the author of A Mother's Diary: How to Survive the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit