Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Supporting Parents of Preemies: Tips for Friends and Family
Last week, I saw the headline Tiny preemie -- one of smallest survivors -- going home and as I read the story of Melinda, a baby born at 24 weeks weighing only 9.5 oz who is going home with her family, I was transported back to the most difficult time in my life. In previous posts, I have written about my experience with the premature birth of our first daughter, Olivia. I have described what it was like going into labor early and having our new baby in the hospital. I also provided tips for parents coping with having a hospitalized baby. Today, even though Olivia is a happy, healthy, average kid (she’s about to turn 4 years old, yikes!) I still remember all of the emotions and stress of our experience and as I read their story, I started to wonder what I would say to Melinda’s family if I met them.
Even when you’ve been through it yourself, it can be difficult to know what to say to parents of preemies. Every baby born prematurely is unique with unique needs and health status and every parent deals with their situation differently. Today, we’ll give a few tips for our readers who have friends or family members with a premature infant.
· Even if you know the parents well, it’s hard to predict how they will react to or handle this stressful situation. Keep in mind that they may not be acting like themselves.
· Provide specific, practical support – The most common way to offer support is “Call if you need something,” but parents are often hesitant or too preoccupied to ask for help. Instead, consider offering a specific type of support. For example, many people offer to make meals for the family. Here are few more examples of things you can do for the family:
§ Rides to and/or from the hospital
§ House cleaning or yard work
§ Caring for other children or pets
§ Make phone calls to update friends and family
· Try to find the right balance between giving space and being present for support. Because it is an emotional situation, sometimes friends and family decide that the parents need their space. Parents of preemies can easily feel isolated when people “don’t want to bother them.” On the other hand, some people are so eager to help that they overwhelm the parents.
· Although it can be helpful to discuss what is happening, many parents (myself included) are not ready to do that right away. If the parents want to talk, be a good listener. If not, make sure that they know that you will be there when they are ready to talk.
· Be mindful of what you say. Words of support can sometimes be taken wrong by parents. For example “You only go through things that you are strong enough to handle,” is intended to be encouraging, but to a parent who is tired and stressed it can seem like you are saying they deserve what is happening. Also, it is very important that you don’t offer medical advice or compare the baby to a “normal” or full-term baby.
· Small improvements and milestones are unbelievably exciting and the tiniest set back can seem devastating. Celebrate the improvements and, when dealing with a setback, help the parents remember all the positive progress the baby has made.
· Every new parent likes to hear compliments about their baby. Acknowledging the baby as a person without being too congratulatory (especially if you are unsure of the baby’s health status) can be difficult, but it is one of the best ways to support new parents.
· Keep in mind that the whole family will need support. Even though much of the attention is focused on mom and baby, finding ways to support dad, siblings, and even grandparents is just as important.
The support of friends and family is so important to families of premature infants. We hope these tips will help guide the support you give. We’d like to hear from you; do you have something to add? Send us a comment.