What to Say to the Mom (or Dad) of a Preemie

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- A post from LifeasMOM contributor, Jessie Leigh -

We’ve all been there.  There are some situations where, well, it’s just so hard to know what to say.  You want to be the person who strikes the right balance… who is supportive and attentive, but not cloying, appropriately serious, but not morbid.  It can be tricky.

As the mother of a baby who was born frighteningly early- at just barely 24 weeks gestation- I’ve been on the receiving end of many well-meaning comments.  I’ve heard some amazing words of encouragement and I’ve also heard some truly horrible remarks.

I know it was very difficult for people to know how to approach me, to come up with the “right words”. Having been through it, I’d like to help the rest of you out with how to say the “right thing” to a preemie mom (or dad).

Say something.

This is the very first thing I want you to know.  You might decide- since you can’t figure out what to say- that saying nothing is the best course of action.  Here’s what I want you to know.  We notice.  And it hurts. If you would have said something following a healthy, full-term birth, you should be saying something in the case of a premature one as well. That’s my rule of thumb.

Keep it positive.

Your job is NOT to focus on all the “what could happen” worries.  The preemie mom has enough of those running through her mind already.  Your first go-to phrases should be very similar to those you would have said following any “typical” birth: “What a beautiful baby!”, “She has your eyes…”, “He’s a spunky little guy!”, etc.  Remark on his name.  Admire her tiny toes.  Acknowledge that a precious little life has been born.

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Be willing to listen.

While I do not advocate bringing up sad or scary topics, you should be willing to lend an ear should she need to talk about them.  Keep in mind that we preemie moms do not actually expect you to be able to answer our questions or address our fears.  We just want affirmation and your listening goes a long way for us.

Do not make promises you can’t keep.

Do not say things like, “Oh, I’m sure she’ll be just fine!” or “He’ll be ok.  My neighbor had a preemie and he’s HUGE now…” The fact is you just don’t know that everything will be fine and, while we know you’re just trying to make us feel better, you shouldn’t get hopes up when you can’t know the future.

Please don’t blame it on God.

I realize- I really, truly do- that people think they’re making it better by saying, “It was all part of God’s plan” or “This is just God’s will” or “Maybe God needs another angel”.  Someday, down the road, the preemie mom may want to look back at how this was all part of God’s plan.  But, when you’re in the throes of it, it’s a slap in the face.  It is not comforting to hear that God’s plan for the other mommy was a healthy, thriving baby and God’s plan for us was a sickly, struggling tiny baby.  That being said…

Offer to pray.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the greatest thing that anyone ever said to me during our difficult three and a half month stint in the NICU was, “I’ll be praying for you.”  It made my heart happy to learn that different church groups all over the nation were praying for my sweet baby girl.  Even if you are of a different faith, the simple question, “May I pray for you?” is a sweet gesture of caring.

You really don’t have to come up with anything clever or elaborate to be a real comfort to a fellow mommy who is dealing with the challenge of a premature birth.  Simple, genuine compassion and support are all you need to make sure you “say the right thing”.

Do you ever struggle with “saying the right thing?”

What advice do you have for others struggling to find the right words?

– JessieLeigh is the mother of a former 24-week micropreemie and two full-term blessings as well. She is a determined advocate for the tiniest of babies, including the unborn, and a firm believer in faith and miracles.  She shares about raising such a precious, tiny baby over at Parenting the Tiniest of Miracles. She is also a regular contributor to LifeasMOM.

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Comments

  1. Mary Smith says:

    My son was a full term baby that was born with low weight,high sugar levels,breathing problems and severe jaundice. He also had a set of the biggest dimples I’ve ever seen on a 4 and 1/2 lb baby,which gave everyone something good to say about my tiny boy.I personally think any baby is beautiful and a awe inspiring miracle and I always offer to pray for mother and child regardless of circumstances surrounding the birth.

    • @Mary Smith, Aw, baby dimples are so precious! What a great reminder, too, that we should also offer to pray under “ideal” birth circumstances- very, very true.

    • I love this post for so many reasons. My (first and only) baby was born full term- with Down Syndrome. I could see all of my family and friends struggling with what to say to us. More than anything, I wanted them to say “Congratulations on your beautiful new baby!” We knew that we were faced with a lot of new challenges (we did a NICU stint as well as three surgeries), but we just wanted people to love our baby just like any other baby and to be excited for the new life that had joined our family. I totally agree about the silence- it hurts so much when people say nothing. It made me feel as though people were judging and feeling sorry for us- worst thing ever! I love what you are saying here. Great post!

      • Jessica Fisher says:

        @Deanna, you are so right. Babies are cause for celebration!

      • @Deanna, It’s hard when you’re so proud of the precious new life you’ve brought into the world and, instead of joyful, others act… disappointed. I just cannot believe that is not how God wants us to welcome our children! We learn to be strong for our children, don’t we, when others are sometimes careless with their words and actions? Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. Thanks for sharing this article. My twins were born at 28 weeks and we spent 2 months in the NICU. I wholeheartedly believe that the prayers of our family and friends (and friends of friends – more people than we’ll ever know) is what got us and our children through the experience.

    One other thing that I would add to your list is to not assume that the child was born early because of something the mother did/did not do during the pregnancy. Even though there are mothers in the NICU who could have taken better care of themselves during the pregnancy, there are also plenty of moms who “did everything right” and the premature birth happened anyway.

    By the way, our twins are almost 3 years old now and doing great. Praise God! We have been so blessed.

    • @Leanne, Congratulations on your healthy little ones… always makes me so happy to hear “success” stories! You are very correct about the causes of prematurity too… all of us who have done NICU stints have seen the moms who contributed to their babies early arrival. We’ve also met moms who did “everything right”. Just another case where it never pays to assume! :)

  3. I have a daughter that was born in 2005 with a genetic condition called tuberous sclerosis. We found about in my 7th month of pregnancy. Now she is a healthy 5 year with a few medical problems(has a pacemaker and all). But I remember her being the biggest baby in the NICU and I also remember all the comments from during my pregnancy. Probably the one that hurt the most was my mother in law considering cancelling the shower. If ever there was a time that you needed hope. But we heard them all both rude and kind comments. Its just kind of funny because the hubby and I are considering trying again. (we were told its like astronomical odds of this happening again). But we told my mother in law that we were considering trying again and we were told people that have more than 2 children are weird(we have 3). LOL

    • @Jolene, I vividly remember the biggest baby in our module of the NICU… he had a very severe case of jaundice and he was 9 1/2 pounds. Around all those micropreemies and heart babies, he looked like a toddler. :) Some dear friends of ours (who we met in the NICU) had the same shower experience. You are right-parents who are already facing challenges desperately need those bright, hopeful moments!

  4. We endured five miscarriages between our second and third children and I agree with the “Say *something*” suggestion. Some of my family members have still never even ACKNOWLEDGED our losses and it’s so hurtful. My aunt did say to me, “I don’t know what to say but I’m sorry” and that was far more supportive than those who have seemingly ignored our pain.

    Always praying for the tiniest of miracles.

    • @Deanna, I have never suffered a miscarriage and my heart goes out to you and Jessica (FishMama) and all those who have… I think you’re very correct in that acknowledging that you DON’T know how someone feels, but that you’re sorry, is sometimes the best thing to say. You don’t have to “know how someone feels” to be genuinely sorry and concerned. Thanks for your comment!

    • @Deanna, I was thinking along the same lines. This is good advice if you know someone going through a miscarriage too.

      Thank you, Jessie Leigh for sharing!

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @Deanna, “My aunt did say to me, ‘I don’t know what to say but I’m sorry’” — That’s my old standby when I’m at a loss for words. I think most ppl on the receiving end appreciate it. I do, anyway.

  5. Our child, who had many problems from birth, ended up needing open-heart surgery at age 2.

    One of the nicest things that someone did for us was to put his name on the prayer board at one of the convents near us.

    We are not Catholic. In fact, we are Jewish. And I thought it was a miracle, that all the nuns were praying for a little Jewish baby they had never met. I’m convinced that their prayers helped him get through the surgery safely, and I KNOW they carried me through his surgery.

    I will always be grateful to them, and to the kind soul who put his name on the board. And ever since, I have asked people in need if they would like me to put their name on the nuns’ prayer board.

    • @Taximom5, What a beautiful story! I will say this, Taximom5… I know there all different faiths (including a local Jewish synagogue) who prayed for our little girl. And we’re Catholic. So I guess it’s all just one big circle after all. And I think that’s beautiful. :)

  6. elizabeth says:

    Wow, great post. My 12 year old son was born at 27 weeks, and my DH and I felt totally unsupported by everyone. 12 years later and it still tugs at my heart.

    My advice would be PLEASE don’t ask morbid questions. Don’t ask a million health questions (“do the doctors think he’ll make it?”) or dwell on the size of the child. People would ask if I could breastfeed and I will NEVER forget someone asking if he wore “doll clothes.” :( No he actually wore no clothes for several weeks as you other preemie moms will know.

    I never had a baby shower, either. The worst was being a first-time mom, 22 years old – and having no support. My baby wasn’t home but I still could have used the dinners and well wishes. My best support was the NICU staff who to whom I will remain forever grateful.

    My son is now 12 and is average size and Thank God, healthy. He had bleeding in his brain at birth and ended up having Cerebral Palsy. It has been a struggle but it could be worse, and I am thankful to have him here with me. :)

    • @elizabeth, Oh, you’re so right, Elizabeth. I was asked, “Do they think she’ll live?” or “Is she even normal?” more times than I can count. I am so sorry that you lacked adequate support from family and friends, but I am happy to hear that you have a wonderful NICU staff. I will always remember some of those nurses as angels. :)

  7. Great post!

    We had twins at 27w and 6d after 3 weeks of full bedrest in the hospital. (They just turned 7 and are doing great.) We received a tremendous amount of support by people’s willingness to offer practical help. Some things that people did: picked up parents at the airport, brought us meals, helped us put the nursery together (all we had purchased prior to going into the hospital were 2 mattresses!), driving me to the hospital for the several weeks after having a csection so I could spend time in the NICU, cleaned our apartment before I came home from the hospital, etc. I can imagine lots of room for service for families that have siblings at home as well as a baby(ies) in the NICU. Also this probably fits in the category of keeping it positive, but I did really appreciate the several gifts of balloons, flowers, etc.

    Thanks for addressing this part of some people’s baby journey.

  8. My twins were born at born at 36 weeks 1 day – while that isn’t super preemie by any stretch, they still ended up in the NICU. Baby Girl was a healthy 6lb 1 oz, but Baby Boy was 3lb 15oz. It really is a hard thing to go through – especially with all of those crazy hormones too! I still feel like I missed something by not having a “normal” birth. I didn’t get to hold my babies right away, I don’t have pics of me with my just born babies and the “happy family” pic that everyone else seems to have. I had a severe drug reaction and didn’t even hardly get to SEE my babies for 24 hours.

    One thing that has stuck with me was a comment made in the NICU scrub room; it brought it home how different our experience is! We were scrubbing in and you could hear a baby SCREAMING – I knew it was my son (they were doing another heel prick). The other mom, not knowing the screaming child was mine said, “Wow, do you hear those healthy developed lungs on that baby! How wonderful!”

    One of the hardest things to do was leave my babies in the hospital while I went home. I remember being wheeled out of the hospital with a plant and thinking, “I hate this plant. This is NOT what I should be leaving with!”

    Great advice!

    • @Kristine, It’s very true that babies don’t need to be born “super early” to wind up in the NICU. Your story of your son’s cry brought tears to my eyes… what a beautiful reminder of the blessings we need to be thankful for! My tiny 24 wkr cried at birth (which almost never happens) and I know how precious that sound can be…

    • @Kristine, I am so sorry about your experience and I do know how you feel on some level. My baby was born at 31 weeks and I too hated leaving the hospital without him. It’s just not a “normal” thing to be released home without your baby. I know for sure that when God created us as perfect beings, He had no intention of mothers being seperated from their precious, needy infants. I felt like though a far stretch and impossibility they could send my baby home with all the neccessary medical equipment AND medical staff to look after him in his own home.

  9. This was so well written. I think all of us NICU moms have had the “stupid” comments that really hurt at the time. Thirteen years have gone by since my experience and still remember how wonderful it was for those dear friends who would come and sit with me and my little one. I also remember coming home after being in the hospital all day and finding my house clean and dinner made and my other children bathed and groomed and what a blessing that was. Sometimes it is the actions that mean so much.
    Thanks for putting words to my feelings.

    • @Becca, Oh, Becca, it warms my heart that you had such thoughtful friends who did the “right” things during what was surely a difficult time for you! Isn’t it amazing how, years down the road, those things still mean so very much?

  10. Thank you for posting this! I had preemie twins, and the best support I got were words that churches and individuals were praying for us/them. It is important that people know not to say those generic “he’ll be OK” and such that you posted- I heard so many of those and stories of other people’s preemies that were just so big…but they weren’t my children and the only person that REALLY knew what I was going through was a friend that had had twin preemies as well. The best thing by far is the knowledge that people are praying. Oh and when the baby/ies come home, offer to help the parents, even if they don’t leave the house- a preemie can come home with monitors, meds, all kind of things and it is very taxing on the parents- even a 30 min nap while you hold their baby safely in another room can do wonders for them!

    • @Michelle, You raise a fantastic point, Michelle… I think because preemie parents often don’t come home with their babies until weeks or even months after the birth, people sometimes forget that some of the real “help” is needed THEN! Most people offer help/meals in the days immediately following a birth. It can be a real blessing to a preemie family who has just been released from the hospital to have a helping hand… even it’s just offering to run to the grocery store for a few things!

  11. Not only to say something but do something. My first son was a normal birth and people came out of the woodwork to help us. Bringing dinners and helping around the house. My second son was born early by c-section and with a number of problem. He was taken to a different hospital while I remained, alone. My poor husband was dividing his time between us and our son who was 2 at the time. I went home 3 days later , hubby had to go back to work. So here I was at home with a 2 year old recovering from a c-section and not aloud to drive. These were the days that I could have used some help or a kind word.
    Thankfully overtime things got better! My son will be 3 this year and is doing good. But the thought of those months still bring a tear to my eye.

    • @Charlene, Oh, Charlene, I wish I had been around to help! You are so right… and the same was true for me. I had far more help with my healthy, full-term firstborn than with my micropreemie and, like you, I was recovering from a c-section. “Doing something” is a good way to be a blessing to new mommy no matter what the circumstances of the birth! :)

  12. I absoultely LOVE that first point… “Say SOMETHING”! That is awesome!! And try to keep personal stories to a minimum. Like you said, don’t make promises you may not be able to keep!!! I had a preemie, just five weeks early, so nothing horrible, but she did have to stay in the NICU for a short while… she was a fighter and ended up pulling her own feeding tube out. They gave her a bottle to try after that hoping to avoid replacing the feeding tube… she never looked back! :) She ended up being technically discharged before me! (I developed and infection and had to stay longer for IV antibiotics!) Babies are strong and good fighters… the stories shared here are amazing and I think this sort of knowledge needs to be passed around because people just don’t know what to do in situations that aren’t “normal”.

    I’ve also had two miscarriages along the way and I think a lot of these same things apply to that situation! I think you should say SOMETHING then too! Just a quick note will do, calls aren’t always best, but just having others acknowledge what has happened helped me. I didn’t want a big deal made from each and every person, but just knowing that they were there or thinking about us, or praying for us was HUGE!! Kind words from others can mean SO, SO much!!! I know it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, especially if you haven’t experienced something like that yourself. But kind words go so far… just knowing you are not alone and can make all the difference in the world! :) Thank you for your post and for Fish Mama doing her part in making others aware of sensitive topics! I think it’s just awesome!!

    • @Jessica, Thank you for your wonderful comment, Jessica! Your little girl sounds like a feisty one… our NICU loved those little feisty girls! ;) I agree that it’s wonderful to read all these amazing stories… and to know that, for some of us, this is what “normal” ends up looking like. :)

  13. JessieLeigh,
    I was wondering if your pre-term delivery was the last birth for you or what number pregnancy she was for you. I’m interested because my baby was delivered at 31 weeks and I was told with subsequent pregnancies I had a higher chance of pre- term delivery. I read your baby’s story and the events you wrote that led up to the delivery and they are VERY similar to mine. So I was just wondering if you had any other early deliveries or if she was the only one for you. I do realize every woman and pregnancy is different but I do like to speak with women with similiar experiences to mine.

    • @Nia, Also with this pregnancy the doctor said pre-term delivery usually happen at the same time OR EARLIER. I am very interested in any women that have experienced a second pre-term delivery at the same gestation period as the first or earlier.

      • @Nia, My micropreemie was born in December of 2005, Nia. She was my second baby (my first was a full-term son in January of 2005.) I am happy to report that I went on to have a third child, born full-term at 37 weeks 1 day, via scheduled c-section, in June of 2009. The causes for my daughter’s prematurity were never determined, so the doctors were fairly optimistic that I could go on to have a full-term pregnancy after. I DID have some restrictions through parts of the pregnancy. If you have any specific questions, I’ll be happy to try to answer!

        • @JessieLeigh,
          I had three more after my micro premie, all full term, one of which was a little late ^.^ But each woman is different and one of the important things I learned was to listen to my doctor, but not to be afraid.

  14. Like many have said, great advice.

    I am a dad of a 29+ weeker. and your advice resonated with me as well. Offers for prayers were definitely the most impactful. Often, not a lot of attention is paid to us Dads of preemies, but we, largely go through the same emotions and difficulties during this these time, they need help and support too. Thanks for writing this and thanks for including “(or dads)” :)

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Sorry to let that fly under the radar. Thanks for mentioning the fathers. When we had our miscarriages, my husband was mourning, too, but rarely did people ask about him. He felt so helpless to watch me from the sidelines and not be able to fix the problem.

    • @Eric – BHF, Thank you so much for commenting, Eric! If I were to add one more thing specifically relating to fathers, it would be this… Do not forget them. My husband has remarked before that he would hear time and time again from people, “This must be so hard on your wife…” And while, yes, it was, it was so hard on him too. To lead our family, continue to provide for us, be a role model for our 1yo son, visit his struggling newborn daughter AND be a husband to me was overwhelming. While I was the one recovering from a massive surgery, he was the one shouldering a disproportionate amount of the load. Thank you for sharing a dad’s viewpoint here… I appreciate it!

  15. @JessieLeigh, Thank you for a quick reply. My pre-term delivery wasn’t determined either, so I guess its just something that happened. I was hoping this time around there was MAYBE something I could do to avoid it, but I guess not. Like you said sometimes it has nothing to do with anything the mother did. Knowing that you had another delivery at full term gives me even more hope, even though every mother/ delivery/ pregnancy is different.

  16. First I like to mention that my twins in some way saved my life. I had already two kids but my compagnion didn’t and we wanted to have one of our own (ended up having twins), so I went to the doctor to get a check out before getting pregnant and turn out I had a cancer, we got it in time it’s been more than 5 years and cancerfree. Got finally pregnant with twins, and gave birth by c-section at 36 weeks. I gave birth to a Downs syndrom girl and a boy. The nurses just show me the babies on their way out, I didn’t had them for a minute to myself. Back in my room they came to tell me about my girl waiting diagnostic and that my son had swallow amiotic liquid and needed help breding, the next morning I had my daughter with me and they had to take my son to another hospital with the needed medical equipement they just stop for a minute in my rooms on their way out, he was all pluged in and I couldn’t hold him, we were kept apart for his first week. I felt lucky I had a least my girl with, they brought him back but he still needed medical attention and his sister needed to be monitor cause she wasn’t getting her weight up, but otherwise she seemed stronger than her normal brother.

    This is just to try to explain my situation, the thing is I was the one not knowing what to say at their birth. I loved my daughter and my son, but I didn’t know how to tell my family and friends, I knew that if someone would have say something unkind I could have turn my back for ever so I was the one nervous about what to say.

    Now my twins are two years old and doing well, even if my son have an obsession with my tummy, he need to rub it or to lay is head on it, I still think it comes from the week we were appart. When we finally were reunite I breastfed him so instead of machine he felt his mom’s warm tummy. He also had problem being alone in a bed but if I put his sister next to him he did stop crying.

    Sorry for a long story, I tried to make it short….but again I have to add that my partner is such a great dad, he had to go between hospital and going through all my mood (hormon bursting ) he is a wonderful man and I’m lucky to have him in my life.
    Guylaine

  17. I’m the mom of a 12-year-old 24 weeker. I loved my best friend for saying, “I can’t wait to hold him,” the day he was born. Another favorite was my mother’s friend who knew that I was very discouraged and pumping milk. She would call to tell me what a good job I was doing for my son. Sometimes mom needs to be told she’s doing well. Parents need a cheerleader. I also had many people praying for us and believe this is why he is 12 today. If you’re not sure you’d want someone to say it to you, don’t say it. A hug is far more important than those words.

  18. I know this is a super old post, but came across it and had to add – my son was preemie and in NICU for 4wks. The thing I wanted to add was ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!!!!’ My father in law told my mother in law not to buy my son a baby gift yet…just in case. In front of me. This is something I never did forget, amongst all the well wishes and hugs from everyone else. So please, don’t say something that will make an already trying time worse.

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