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Managing relationships after premature birth

The arrival of your premature baby will have a huge impact, not only on you, but on those who are close to you.

When people talk about having a premature baby, the focus tends to be on the needs of the mother. However, the experience may have a devastating effect on all of the family – especially the baby’s father, siblings and grandparents, plus other people in your social network.

How premature birth affects fathers

Fathers often have a very difficult role when their baby is born prematurely. They are likely to be extremely traumatised by the birth and ensuing events, and may feel out of control or alienated in the baby unit.

The challenges facing new dads

If they have to return to work soon after the birth, men have to maintain the outward appearance of normal life while undergoing constant fear for their baby and often for you too, if you are ill after the birth or emotionally finding it difficult to cope. This can lead them to suppress feelings of isolation, fear and stress. They may not have as much time as they would like to become confident at handling their new baby. This can make them feel removed from the situation.

What you can do

  • Get him to open up. Make sure your partner has the opportunity to talk through his feelings – with you, a healthcare professional or a close friend or relation.
  • Encourage him to play an active role in caring for the baby. This could involve kangaroo care, bottle or tube feeding, all of which can help fathers overcome common feelings of being marginalised and isolated from their premature baby.

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How premature birth affects siblings

Older children may be very affected by the experience of having a new baby brother or sister who is born prematurely. Children are very sensitive to what is going on, and if you are concerned about the baby – even if you don’t talk openly about it – they may well be aware of this.

What you can do

  • Keep them informed. Gently explain what’s happening, being careful not to go into unnecessary detail or to offload your own fears and feelings onto them.
  • Make sure they have plenty of attention. If this can’t be from you, then enlist the help of other adults with whom they have a good rapport.
  • Let them get involved. Give your children the opportunity to help with the baby’s care or to talk about things if they want to.

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How premature birth affects grandparents

Many grandparents – especially where the baby is their first grandchild – are not clear exactly what their role should be as their child becomes a parent themselves. This is heightened with a premature baby, where you may be unable to involve them as much as you would like.

What you can do

  • Express yourself. If you are close to your parents, talk about what you are going through. Your parents will be worried about you as well as your baby. Give them the opportunity to talk about their feelings too.
  • Be upfront about how they can help. Sometimes you might feel they are distracting you from your baby and you might prefer them to stay away. If they are keen to help but unsure of what to do, think of some tasks that they could easily take on that would make a real difference to you. 

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Managing competing demands after premature birth

Every member of your family plays a crucial part in holding your little unit together, and close relationships can be a source of real support – but they can lead to conflict too.

Working through problems

Your loved ones will form a vital support for you during the early weeks and months of your baby’s life. However, the trials and stresses of having a premature baby bring with them many opportunities for disharmony. Many of these stem from the competing demands of different people in your life. For example, consider:

  • The needs of a mother who feels she must spend every waking hour in the intensive care unit, versus the needs of her 4 year old son who misses his mum.
  • The needs of a new father who needs to talk through his experiences of a traumatic birth experience, versus the needs of his partner who feels too tired and overwrought to think about what happened.
  • The needs of well-wishers who have sent presents and are waiting eagerly for news of the baby, versus the needs of parents who are too emotionally exhausted to do anything that isn’t essential.

In all these examples, both parties’ needs could be considered valid, even if they are incompatible with each other.

Saying what you really think

Rather than side-stepping difficult situations like the ones above, it is often a good idea to raise the issue and talk it through. If you think the other person might take offence, as well as making your own point make sure you emphasise how much you value them and respect their own needs.

In some cases, you might be able to reach a compromise. For example, if your family want to visit you and the baby more often than you would like, they might agree to keep visits to a limited time, or to understand if you use the opportunity to have a nap. If you can face these issues head on, you may prevent misunderstandings, hurt or resentment further down the line.

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How others can help

Family and friends may be an essential support at this difficult time, but not everyone is good at dealing with this sort of situation. You may be surprised by the people who rally round, and you may be disappointed that others are less able to support you than you had hoped. Most will have no idea what you are going through but will want to help, so:

  • Tell them how they can lighten your load. They will probably be only too pleased to help by keeping you company, cooking meals or offering to help with your other children.
  • Ignore unhelpful comments. Try to keep in mind that most people have no idea what you have to deal with and would probably be horrified at their own insensitivity if they did.

Read more about how others can help here.

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Celebrating your premature baby’s breakthroughs

Many families find that they are so busy focusing on the baby’s health problems that there is little space to think about the good things. It is important to allow yourself to feel grief when you’re going through hard times. When your baby has a breakthrough though, such as coming off a particular treatment, or going home, it can be helpful to celebrate that too.

Sharing good news

Many parents like to mark these events in some small way and to share them with others. This might simply involve sending out a group text to loved ones telling them the news, sharing a glass of bubbly or having a meal with close friends or family. You might prefer to simply note them down in your journal.

Try to sustain that positive feeling for as long as you can. If more challenges may lie ahead, focusing on how far you have come may help to sustain you during the harder times.

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Published April 2012, next review April 2015


Boxwell G (2010) Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing, United Kingdom, Routledge

Fraser DM, Cooper MA (2009) Myles Textbook for Midwives (15th edition), London, Churchill

Turrill S, Crathern L (2010) Families in NICU, (2nd edition) cited in Boxwell G (2010) Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing, United Kingdom, Routledge

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