If your baby is born too early, the miracle of birth might be overshadowed by health concerns and the possible long-term effects of prematurity. However, there's much you can do to take care of your premature baby — and yourself — as you look toward the future.
A premature (preterm) baby is born before 37 complete weeks of pregnancy. Generally, the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of complications.
At first, your premature baby might have little body fat and need help maintaining body heat. He or she might cry only softly and have trouble breathing due to respiratory distress syndrome or bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Feeding your preemie might be a challenge. Yellowing of the skin (jaundice), a low red blood cell count (anemia of prematurity), temporary pauses in breathing (apnea) and infection are possible. Some preemies have an eye disease in which the retina is not fully developed (retinopathy of prematurity).
Premature babies might also experience impaired cognitive skills, motor deficits, or behavioral, psychological or chronic health problems.
Keep in mind that every baby is different. Your baby's doctor or health care team can help you understand your baby's health concerns.
Your preemie's special needs call for special care, probably in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In some cases, a premature baby needs to be transported to a hospital that can provide specialized care. You might feel helpless, but there are many steps you can take to help your baby. For example:
- Find out about your preemie's condition. Uncertainty can be frightening — as can the monitors, respirators and other types of equipment in the NICU. Write down your questions and seek answers when you're ready. The more you know, the better you'll be able to handle the situation.
- Share your observations and concerns. If you notice changes in your preemie's condition, tell your baby's medical team right away.
- Establish your milk supply. Breast milk contains proteins that help fight infection and promote growth. Although your preemie might not be able to feed from your breast or a bottle at first, breast milk can be given in other ways — or frozen for later use. Begin pumping as soon after birth as possible. Aim to pump at least six to eight times a day, round-the-clock. Also, ask your baby's doctor about your baby's need for supplementation — either in the form of breast milk fortifiers, supplemental vitamins, or preterm infant formula.
- Spend time with your baby. Talking and reading to your baby can help you bond. When your baby is ready, cradle him or her in your arms. Hold your baby under your robe or shirt to allow skin-to-skin contact. Learn to feed, change and soothe your preemie. If you're concerned about interfering with IV tubes or monitor wiring, ask for help. Consider personalizing your baby's incubator with a blanket or family pictures.
You're concentrating on your baby now, but remember that you have needs, too. Taking good care of yourself will help you take the best care of your preemie.
- Allow time to heal. You might need more time to recover from the rigors of childbirth than you imagined. Eat a healthy diet, and get as much rest as you can. When your health care provider gives you the OK, make time for physical activity, too.
- Acknowledge your emotions. Expect to feel joy, sadness, anger and frustration. You might celebrate successes one day, only to experience setbacks the next. Take it one day at a time. Remember that you and your partner or spouse might react differently. Support each other during this stressful time.
- Take a break. If you leave the hospital before your baby, use your time at home to prepare for your baby's arrival. Your baby needs you, but it's important to balance time at the hospital with time for yourself and the rest of your family.
- Be honest with your baby's siblings. If you have other children, you might explain that their baby sister or brother is sick and you're worried. Reassure your children that the baby's illness isn't their fault. If your children aren't allowed to see the baby in the NICU, show them pictures.
- Accept help. Allow friends and loved ones to care for older children, clean the house or run errands.
- Seek support. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones. Talk with other NICU parents. Join a local support group for parents of preemies, or check out online communities. Seek professional help if you're feeling depressed or you're struggling to cope with your new responsibilities.
When it's time to bring your baby home, you might feel relieved, excited and anxious. It might be daunting to leave behind the on-site support of your baby's medical team. Keep in mind that as you spend more time with your baby, you'll better understand how to meet his or her needs and your relationship will grow stronger.
To ease the transition home:
- Understand your baby's needs. Make sure you know how to administer medications, use monitors at home or give your baby supplemental oxygen or other treatments. Schedule follow-up visits with your baby's doctor, and find out whom to call if you have concerns in the meantime.
- Ask about your baby's car seat. Keep in mind that because sitting semireclined in a car seat can increase the risk of breathing problems or a slow heartbeat, your baby might need to be monitored in his or her car seat before hospital discharge. When you have the OK to use a car seat, don't leave your baby unattended in the car seat. In addition, don't place your baby in a backpack or other upright positioning devices — which might make it harder for him or her to breathe — until you talk to your baby's doctor.
- Find out about available resources. Your baby might be at risk of developmental delays or disabilities. Ask your baby's health care team about local, state or federal resources that might be available.
To measure your premature baby's development, use his or her corrected age — your baby's age in weeks minus the number of weeks he or she was premature. For example, if your baby was born eight weeks early, at age 6 months your baby's corrected age is 4 months.
You'll always remember your baby's time in the hospital. Now cherish the opportunity to begin making memories at home.