Getting Real With Wanda Morrissey

Having a child in the hospital is never easy. It puts a lot of stress on the parents and family as a whole. Often extended family and friends are at a loss as to what to do or say during times like that. In an effort to be helpful or encouraging, they may unintentionally say the wrong thing. In honor of November being Preemie Awareness Month, I’ve put together a list of the Top 5 things to never say to a preemie parent and the Top 5 things to say.

Never Say:

1. “It must be nice to be able to relax and catch up on your sleep while your baby is in the hospital.” There is nothing ‘nice’ about having your baby in the hospital fighting for its life. It’s hard to rest and sleep when you spend hours at the hospital or traveling back and forth between the hospital, lay awake at night worrying or panicking every time the phone rings. You wouldn’t say that to a parent if their child were in the Paediatric Cancer Ward so why would you say it to a parent whose child was in the NICU?

2. “Don’t worry so much.  People have preemies all the time and they’re just fine.” Yes, people do have preemies all the time, 1 in 8 births is premature. But, no, not all are ‘just fine’. There are hundreds of things that can go wrong; from minor developmental delays, to severe disabilities to death.

3. “Why isn’t your baby crawling yet? So and So’s baby is the same age and she’s crawling already.”  I know it’s natural for parents to compare and brag about their babies milestones but preemies aren’t like other babies. Preemies need time to catch up. They will catch up but they do need extra time. A preemie’s milestones are measured from their due date not their birth date. So, if a baby was born two months early they’ll be about two months behind their peers in development.

4. “You were so lucky not to have to go through the last months of pregnancy.”  What’s lucky about having a baby in the NICU? What’s lucky about having a child hooked up to monitors and wires, fighting for it’s life? What’s lucky about having to leave your baby in a hospital while you go home? And there are a lot preemie moms who get depressed because they feel they were cheated (for lack of a better word) out of the whole pregnancy experience.

5. “What did you do to cause your baby to be born premature?” The cause for premature birth, in the majority of cases, is unknown. Some known causes are twin (or multiples) pregnancy, incompetent cervix (cervix dilates too soon) or PROM (premature rupture of membranes) with PROM being the most common cause. Doctors may decide to deliver a baby early in cases of IUGR (intrauterine growth restricted), placenta praevia (placenta has attached to close to cervix) or preeclampsia (high blood pressure and protein in the urine). None of these are the fault of the mother and there is nothing that she could have done to prevent them. Drug and alcohol addiction have been known to play a part in premature birth but less than 1% of preemies are born early for this reason.

All those things were said to me, some of them more than once.

Do Say:

1. “Congratulations.”  Congratulating someone on having a child that’s going to be in the hospital for an extended period of may sound odd and same may feel awkward doing so. Think of it more as injecting some normal into a situation that isn’t, as an acknowledgement that they are now parents.

2. “Your baby is beautiful.” Seeing a preemie for the first time can be scary and heartbreaking. They’re tiny, hooked up to monitors with wires going everywhere. Looking past all that and seeing the precious baby lying there will make a preemie parent’s day.

3. “Do you need a ride to the hospital?” If you say it, follow through. A lot of the time, a preemie will be in a hospital that’s in another town/city. It mightn’t be easy for the parents, especially if one has to work, to get back and forth. Gas and parking costs can add an extra strain to an already stressful situation. Some mothers, after a c-section, aren’t allowed to travel on their own for a period of time. A ride to see their baby will always be appreciated.

4. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Even if they say ‘no’, they’ll be grateful for a meal that they don’t have to make at 10pm after a long day in the NICU. You can always make a meal that they can freeze and then heat up when needed or give them a gift certificate to a local restaurant. If there are older children, offer to babysit. Offer to walk the dog or help with laundry. Even little things can help alleviate some of the stress preemie parents are feeling.

5. “Do you want to talk about it?” Talking is great. Talking gives people the chance to express how they are feeling and sort out the emotions. Explaining to someone else about what’s happening can help the parents to better understand it themselves. It gives the parents a chance to vent and cry. Having someone to listen and a shoulder to cry on is invaluable.

I wish someone had said more of these things to me.