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.
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.
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Last reviewed: September 2023