Parenting Premature Babies: Focus on Development

As a parent, caring for a preterm baby starts with doing the things we know help to prevent pre-term birth and the complications it can bring. Some risks for preterm birth are out of parents' control, like carrying multiple babies (twins, triplets, etc.) and having a history of preterm births, but most of the factors associated with preterm birth are within the control of expecting parents. According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), some things you can do to help bring your baby full term include:

  • Taking special precautions during pregnancy to prevent infections.
  • Working with your doctor to keep your blood pressure from getting too high during pregnancy.
  • Staying away from all tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and other substances that could be potentially harmful to the baby.
  • Begin your prenatal care as early as you know that you are pregnant.
  • Practice self-care and do what you need to keep your stress level low throughout the pregnancy.

Sometimes, even when mothers avoid all of the known risk factors, babies will be born prematurely. In addition to the stress this puts on the baby to "catch-up" in development, it can cause many emotional and financial worries for the whole family.

What Baby Needs

Premature babies may require special attention. Some things to think about when caring for a preemie:

  • Many preemies need more quiet environments.
  • Preemies may have a harder time learning to calm themselves down and developing the early forms of self-control. Paying extra care to help calm and soothe your baby will still help him/her develop these abilities; it just may take longer than other children. Click here for more tips on calming your baby.
  • Even if your preemie cannot nurse or feed normally right away, she will need breast milk eventually because it contains important proteins she will need to grow strong and fight infections. It is important to begin pumping as soon after birth as possible and work with your baby's doctor to see if the milk can be given to your baby or you can freeze it for later.The Mayo Clinic recommends pumping 6-8 times a day.
  • All of the recommendations we give for helping a full-term baby develop still apply to encouraging the development of a preemie, they just may require more patience and persistence. It is important to talk to your baby, interact and hold him, read stories to him, play and sing songs.

What Family Needs

In the stress of caring for a pre-term baby, it can be easy to lose sight of personal and family needs, but these needs are also very important.

  • It is natural to have a lot of feelings about what is going on in your family, and every member may be feeling different things. Try to acknowledge your feelings and others feelings in this difficult time.
  • If there are other siblings in the family, this can be a very scary process, so truthful explanations of what is happening at the child's level can be helpful in allowing the child to understand what is going on and to be okay with feeling sad and scared about it.
  • Remember that you do not have to be alone in this. Seek support from family and friends, and also reach out to other parents at the hospital. It can also be very helpful to talk to a professional counselor about how you are doing with the challenges of the initial birth and the continued challenge of parenting a preemie.
  • Take time to do things you know will help you. If you need a walk or a bubble bath or to take time for coffee with a friend, it is important to do so. You will be better equipped to handle the needs of your baby if you feel cared for and supported too.