Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

Supporting parents of sick or premature babies

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Practical and emotional support is needed for parents of sick or premature babies.
  • It’s important for parents to feel their baby’s birth is a celebration, even if they were early or unwell.
  • Support may be needed for weeks or months after birth, not just the early days.
  • It can be helpful to minimise the additional stresses of new parents so they can prioritise their baby.

Families with a sick or premature baby

It’s common to know or be close to someone who has a sick or premature baby. More than 26,000 Australian babies are born preterm each year. Many of these babies have health issues relating to their prematurity and other conditions. It can be hard to know how best to support parents who are going through their own challenges. Many babies need to stay in hospital and get special care until they gain weight and are able to regulate their temperature and feed well. Emotional ups and downs are normal for parents in the early weeks and months as they make their own adjustments.

Support from family and friends can be very helpful, especially when it helps parents to keep their focus on the baby. It also helps to understand that parents need to prioritise themselves and their baby for as long as they need. This may help to alleviate them from any feelings of guilt or responsibility to others at this time.

Focusing on the positive and celebrating their baby

It’s important to congratulate the new parents on the birth of their baby. However, you may need to choose the best time to give flowers, a card or a gift, depending on the baby’s health and condition. Gifts that reflect a little sensitivity are wise. A journal for the new parents to record their experiences, nice toiletries for the mother, a photo album or frame or a book to read to the baby are all good choices.

You may want to save sending flowers until the baby comes home, when there’s more opportunity to enjoy them.

Staying in touch

It’s common for friends and family to not be in such frequent contact after the initial excitement and surprise when a baby has been born early. However, long hospital stays can create feelings of loneliness in new parents. Texts, phone calls, emails, letters and cards are all good ways of letting parents know you’re thinking about them and that they haven’t been forgotten.

How can I support parents of a sick or premature baby?

Ask them what they need and how you can help. Let them know you’re there for them and want to help and be supportive.

Practical tips

With the parent’s consent, offer to provide updates to family members and friends. This will help to free up their energy to invest into their baby and save repeating themselves multiple times. Ask for a list of contacts and what information they are happy to share. Offer to set up a messaging group or social media page for the new parents so they only need to use one source to communicate.

If the mother is discharged home before her baby, offer lifts to and from the hospital. Parking fees can be very expensive, especially when they’re needed over a few weeks or months. Offer to pay for a parking voucher.

Book and pay for a meal or two at an eatery close to the hospital so the parents can take a little time for themselves. The days and nights can be very long for parents whose baby is in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Offer to go for a walk or a coffee with the new parent somewhere close to the hospital. Fresh air, conversation and a break in the routine of sitting with the baby can be very restorative.

Offer minding older children and doing drop-offs/pickups from school and childcare.

Cook complete meals that can be frozen and only need reheating.

What to expect when their baby comes home

Every family takes some time to settle in at home. For parents of sick or premature babies, this adjustment can take longer. Give the parents some time to work out their new routine and respect their choice if they’d prefer not to have visitors for a while.

Offer to clean the home, do laundry and care for older children and pets.

Ask the new parent what they want and need. In close relationships, it can be helpful to take the initiative and do what’s clearly needed.

Respect the parent’s choices if they’d prefer you didn’t hold the baby. Stay away if you’re unwell and make sure no one else who’s visiting is sick. If they are happy for you to cuddle the baby, wash your hands first and don’t kiss the baby or hold it close to your face or mouth.

Be mindful of not overwhelming the new family when the baby comes home. Time your visits so there’s not a lot of people all visiting at once. Keep your visits short and don’t expect to be waited on. Come prepared with drinks and snacks so the new parent doesn’t feel any pressure to be an ideal host.

Listening and being present

Trauma is a common experience for parents of sick or premature babies. Anxiety and depression are also more common when a baby’s birth outcome was not as expected. Support can take many forms, but one of the most valuable strategies is to listen and ‘be there’ as needed.

We all deal with challenges in different ways. Some new parents want to talk about how they’re feeling and others are less open. It’s important to respect their right to express how they feel in whatever way that works for them. Listening in a non-judgmental way and just being a supportive presence can be very helpful.

Avoid talking about your own experiences, even if they are very similar. Wait until you’re asked to offer advice or talk about your own baby.

Importantly, just as you would in other new parent situations, offer positive feedback and complements about the baby, for example, “She’s growing quickly” or “He’s looking at you”. Some genuine praise and acknowledgement of the parent’s challenges can also be very helpful.

Resources and support

For families of premature and sick newborns, the Miracle Babies Foundation has a 24hr support line on 1300 622 243.

The Gidget Foundation Australia provides support for the emotional wellbeing of expectant and new parents. They have a range of resources including videos and fact sheets.

Life’s Little Treasures Foundation (LLTF) is a charity that provides support, information and assistance to families of babies born prematurely or sick.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023

Back To Top

Need more information?

NurtureTime - Miracle Babies

NurtureTime in-hospital support is facilitated by caring parents who themselves have experienced the birth of premature or sick newborn

Read more on Miracle Babies Foundation website

Premature baby

Preterm labour is when you go in to labour before your pregnancy reaches 37 weeks. Here's what to expect when you have your baby prematurely.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Premature birth & premature babies | Raising Children Network

This essential guide for parents of premature babies covers gestational age, premature birth risk factors, premature labour and premature development.

Read more on website

Dads: premature birth and premature babies | Raising Children Network

After a premature birth, it can be hard for dads. Our dads guide to premature babies and birth covers feelings, bonding, and getting involved with your baby.

Read more on website

What is Prematurity? - Miracle Babies

Prematurity is the term used to describe when a baby is born early

Read more on Miracle Babies Foundation website

PIRI Programs for Depression, Prematurity & Babies - PIRI - Parent-Infant Research Institute

The team at PIRI have developed a number of programs designed to help women and their families during their transition to parenthood, and to support and enhance the early parent-infant relationship.

Read more on Parent-Infant Research Institute website

Bonding with premature babies in the NICU | Raising Children Network

For parents with premature babies in the NICU, bonding might seem hard. This guide explains how to use touch, song, play and daily care to bond with baby.

Read more on website

Premature babies and birth | Raising Children Network

Premature babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Our essential guide covers premature birth, babies, development, NICU and more.

Read more on website

Premature birth: coping with your feelings | Raising Children Network

After a premature birth and while caring for a premature baby, it’s normal to have powerful and mixed feelings. Here’s how to cope with your feelings.

Read more on website

Premature birth: questions & checklist | Raising Children Network

Our checklist has answers to questions about premature birth and labour, covering where and how premature babies are born, and things to ask medical staff.

Read more on website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.