Many women describe their early days with a new baby as having a dream-like quality. You are recovering from the birth, coping with a great deal of change - not to mention raging hormones - and may feel extremely tired.
If your baby is born prematurely, you have to cope with all of this without having had a chance to prepare yourself - either emotionally or practically. The birth may have come as a big shock, and you may also be coping with the realities of health problems for you or your baby.
Bonding with your premature baby
If your baby is in an incubator, you may find it harder than usual to bond with them - though this is not always the case. If you don't feel a connection with your baby at first, don't worry - just try to take each day as it comes.
You may worry because there may be a big difference between how you feel about your baby and how you think you 'should' feel about your baby.
If you are expecting to fall in love with them at first sight, you may feel very worried or guilty if you feel somewhat detached from the small creature lying in the incubator.
Try not to worry if you don't bond immediately. It takes many mothers some time to get to know and love their new baby - especially after a difficult birth. If your baby is in an incubator, then it may take you a little longer to connect with them, as so many other people need to be involved in their care. Kangaroo care can help with the bonding process and when your baby is stable this will probably be encouraged.
The neonatal unit
The first time you see your baby in the baby unit, it may come as a big shock. The unit itself may seem like a space-age control room - very hot, with lots of flashing lights, beeping monitors and other mystifying pieces of equipment. Among all these are the incubators, each one containing a tiny baby.
Your tiny baby may be at the centre of a tangle of tubes, surrounded by equipment. Seeing them in this situation can be very distressing, and it is easy to feel very overwhelmed.
What your premature baby will look like
Your baby may also look quite different to what you had imagined. Newborn babies never look like the bouncing bundles that you see in the nappy adverts, but a baby born prematurely will be at an earlier stage of development, and so may look quite different to what you might expect. For example, they have very red skin, which may be covered in a fine down. Be reassured that these things are temporary. As your baby grows they will look more like the baby you had expected.
Weight: 1-3.5lb (450-1600g)
Length: 10-13in (25-33cm)
At this stage, your baby will be very thin, with fragile red skin covered with downy hair (lanugo). His head will look large, he will have soft skull bones, and a small face with a pointed chin and eyes fused shut.Hide details
Weight: 2-5.5lb (1-2.5kg)
Length: 12-14in (30-35cm)
Your baby will still be quite thin, and his skin will be slightly translucent and still covered in downy hair. In girls you may see tiny nipples. He may move quite vigorously and grasp your finger, and may be able to suck or lick, but he won't be ready to feed on his own.Hide details
Weight: 3.5-7lb (1.6-3.4kg)
Length: 15-18in (38-45cm)
By this stage, your baby will be much more robust and will look more like what you'd expect a term baby to look like. He may still be quite thin, with some hair, and he may still need extra help with feeding and breathing and staying warm.Hide details
Levels of care
Special care baby unit (SCBU)
Also called the special care baby unit (SCBU, pronounced 'skaboo') or special care unit (SCU), these provide the most simple level of care for babies in their local area and stabilise a baby's condition before transferring him to another unit or provide emergency care if necessary. They may also provide some high-dependency services. They receive babies from other units once they are well enough to be cared for there.
Local neonatal unit (LNU)
Local neonatal units (LNUs) provide special care for babies in their local area, except for those who are very unwell and need complex or longer-term intensive care. The majority of babies over 27 weeks of gestation will usually receive their full care, including short periods of intensive care, within their LNU.
Neonatal intensive care units (NICU)
These specialist units have the facilities to care for critically ill premature babies. Babies will be transferred here from around the country to access the specialised expertise that they offer. They provide the whole range of medical neonatal care for their local population, along with additional care for babies and their families referred from the neonatal network.
The best thing you can do for your baby is to look after yourself. That way, you will be better equipped to handle the challenges that face you and your family.
The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)/special care baby unit (SCBU)/neonatal unit is where your baby will get the treatment they need until they are healthy enough to move on.
If your baby is born very prematurely and/or is very sick, they may need to be transferred to another hospital with specialist facilities.
After your premature baby is born the medical team will immediately assess your baby's health and start treating them if necessary.
Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby is a wonderful way for you both to bond. It also provides health benefits.
You will play an important part in your premature baby's care, even while they are in the NICU.
Your premature baby's diet will be carefully balanced to suit their tiny digestive system while meeting the needs of their growing body.
Positioning your premature baby correctly can make them feel secure, improve their breathing ability, strengthen their muscles and reduce the risk of cot death.
You may be asked if you would consider taking part in research into premature birth. We explain what this might involve.
We answer some of your questions about your premature baby's time in the hospital and neonatal unit.
You're bound to feel anxious if your premature baby needs surgery, but try to focus on the positive: the operation is likely to help improve your baby's chances.
During their stay in the baby unit, your baby will have all kinds of checks to monitor their progress.
If your premature baby has any of the conditions below, ask the healthcare team to explain anything that you don’t understand.
Babies born prematurely are more likely to have problems with their eyesight and hearing, but in most cases treatment is successful.
Premature babies have less developed immune systems and are more susceptible to infection, but there are ways to reduce the risk.
It's worrying if you discover that your baby has a heart problem, but most defects are treatable and some do not even need treatment.
Many premature babies need help with breathing for a while. This is known as ventilation.
- Bradford N (2005) Your premature baby: the first five years, Toronto, Firefly Books
- Henderson D, Macdonald S (2004) Mayes Midwifery (13th edition), London, Balliere Tindall
- Hunt F (2008) The importance of kangaroo care on infant oxygen saturation levels and bonding, Journal of Neonatal Nursing, Vol 14, No 2, p47-51
ℹLast reviewed on April 1st, 2017. Next review date April 1st, 2020.
By Sven (not verified) on 23 Aug 2019 - 05:37
My precious angel was born at 28 weeks. She has so many health issues from infections to breathing problems. When my wife and i go see her in the incubator she is so close but still so far.i want to hold her but we are not allowed. We speak to her and sometimes she opens her amazing little eyes and smilesThere has not been one day that has gone by that i have not shed tears for my Angel.Can't sleep well barely have an appetite. It is the most difficult situation i have ever gone through.
By Emma (not verified) on 6 May 2019 - 15:37
My saying is that I was a premature baby and I was also drug addicted when I was born my bio sucked I was adopted they lost there rights to me now I am going to be adopted again so don’t lose your hope.
By Anonymous (not verified) on 17 Feb 2018 - 20:04
Just Gave birth to my loving premature son this month I'm so stressed but also wanna be a good mother to him. Thank you very much, I will keep on reading more maybe it's gonna help
By Midwife @Tommys on 19 Feb 2018 - 14:44
Congratulations, We at Tommy's wish you and your baby son all the best. Keep in touch with us and remember that we are here for you when you need us. Take care x
By Midwife @Tommys on 12 Oct 2016 - 12:50
Thank you for your post I can only imagine how frightening and uncertain things must be for you after the birth of your little boy.
He is in the best place being cared for by a team of specialists. It may take time to find out what the health issues are for your son. Additional tests and investigations will be required, but his immediate care and your recovery are what is most important right now. The team caring for him will want to keep you up to date with his condition and when there is new information this will be shared with you, his Mum.
We are here for support to speak to on 08000147800 weekdays 9-5 pm. Please don't hesitate to call.