Coping with a premature birth
If your newborn was premature and is spending time in hospital, it can be a very stressful time. This may take its toll on your emotional and physical wellbeing.
While your baby is in hospital, you’ll probably be spending all your time going back and forth to the baby unit as you try and take care of your baby alongside all other responsibilities in your life. Although you’ll probably be very tired, you may not be sleeping very well because of the stress.
Even after an uncomplicated labour and birth, women can feel very emotional as their bodies start the recovery process. Having a premature baby is an even bigger adjustment and it may take you (and your partner, if you have one) a long time – and possibly professional support – to accept what has happened.
Managing anxiety in the hospital
It’s natural to feel anxious if your baby needs special care. It may help to talk through any fears or worries with the hospital staff.
They should explain what treatment your baby is having. Ask them if they don’t. It’s important that you understand what’s happening so you can work together to make sure your baby gets the best care. It may also help ease your anxiety and give you a sense of control.
There may be a family support team at the hospital who can help with practical issues, such as travel costs or help with looking after children. Find out more about practical tips for surviving the baby unit.
There are little things you can do to help you stay physically well. You won't be able to change the fact that this is a challenging time, but if you take care of your basic needs, you will find it a little easier to cope.
Staying physically healthy
Eat a healthy balanced diet
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of maintaining good health, especially if you're breastfeeding. Caffeine can reach your baby through your breastmilk, so try to limit any caffeine to less than 200mg a day. Use our caffeine calculator to find out how much caffeine you are consuming. If you’re breastfeeding, you should also take a 10-microgram supplement of vitamin D each day.
It’s also important to stay hydrated. Try to drink 5–8 glasses of water a day.
You may not have the time or the energy to make healthy meals. If possible, ask family or friends to batch cook some meals that you can store in the freezer.
Try to sleep well
A lack of sleep can leave you feeling tired and irritable and make it harder to concentrate or make decisions. Your mood is likely to get worse the less you sleep and can even lead to mood disorders and depression and anxiety. This may have an impact on how you feel about what’s happening, as well as your relationship with your partner. A lot of sleepless nights can also affect your immune system, leaving you less able to fight off infections such as the common cold or flu.
It may not be possible to simply get more sleep. But trying to find ways to wind down and relax will help your state of mind, which then may lead to better sleep. You could try things like:
- having a warm bath
- using a meditation app, such as the Mindfulness App, Headspace or Calm
- doing relaxation exercises, such as yoga
- listening to calming music or reading a book
- avoid scrolling through your phone for an hour or so before you go to bed.
Get enough exercise
This can be very difficult when you’re exhausted, stressed and unable to follow your normal routine, but it is important. Even if your baby’s still in hospital, try to get out for a short walk whenever possible. The fresh air and change of scene will do you good.
Take time out from being a parent to recharge
Whether your baby is in hospital or back at home, try to take some time for yourself. This may involve going out to get a coffee, relaxing with a magazine, taking a stroll around the shops or calling a friend. Don’t feel guilty about doing something that doesn't involve your baby.
“Everyone asks the question, ‘when do they get to come home?’. But try to take it steady and don’t try and focus on any specific dates. Try to take it one day at a time.”
Some tips from parents who have been through a similar situation
Every parent with a premature baby will face different challenges, depending on their circumstances. You may already be able to think of some ways that you can help yourself feel better.
Here are some tips from other parents of premature babies:
- Spend one-to-one time with your partner or a good friend – for example, by setting aside a special evening every week or two.
- Keep in regular contact with close friends or family – whether by phone, by email or meeting up in person.
- Do some exercise, such as walking, swimming or doing a gym class or yoga.
- Use relaxation techniques such as meditation.
- Keep up a hobby that has nothing to do with parenting, such as a book club.
- If you have other children, spend a set period of one-to-one time with them every week.
- Listen to your favourite music, eat your favourite food or watch your favourite movies.
- Pamper yourself with a haircut or massage.
Experiencing grief after giving birth prematurely
Every parent hopes for a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy, labour and birth. This is why many parents experience feelings of loss and grief when their baby is born prematurely. You may find yourself grieving for all sorts of reasons, such as:
- the loss of an experience, such as having the type of birth you had planned, breastfeeding or close physical contact with your baby
- the loss of a comfortable, homely environment where you can for your baby and the loss of privacy and a sense of control
- a loss of shared experience with other parents or friends who cannot identify with your experiences, or when reading books, websites or email updates that don’t relate to your situation
- the loss of aspects of your earlier life, such as your career, social life, a full night’s sleep or simply a carefree existence without constant worries about your baby
- a sense of loss of what you imagined parenting to be like if your baby develops long-term health problems or disability
- a sense of unfairness – why has this happened to you and not others
- if your baby does not survive – very sadly a small number of premature babies pass away.
Grief and loss affect people in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to feel. Some common symptoms include:
- shock and numbness
- overwhelming sadness
- tiredness or exhaustion
“Premature birth is undeniably scary and unsettling. You spend your pregnancy counting down the days and weeks until the big 40 and when your baby makes an appearance before then, it's a lot to take in. They should be safe, tucked up in your tummy and you feel a sense of responsibility, as if your body has failed you. If I learned anything from my NICU journey, it is to be kind to myself and to lean on those around me when I need it. It is normal to mourn the 'firsts' you didn't get to enjoy when your baby is taken off to the neonatal unit soon after being born. The nurses, doctors and consultants will care for your baby while you care for yourself. Don't feel guilty for the feelings you have and try to talk them through with the professionals around you – they will support you and answer any questions you have.”
Delayed reaction to premature birth
Some parents feel fine at first, and then suddenly feel overwhelming grief and distress several days or weeks later. Others find that a traumatic birth experience may stay with them for months or even years.
Talking about how you feel
However you are feeling, it may help you simply to recognise and name those feelings. Talking them through with your partner, a family member or close friend may help. The hospital may be able to offer you specialist support, such as counselling.
It can be reassuring to talk to other parents with similar experiences. You may meet other parents on the baby unit. The healthcare team at the hospital may also have details of relevant local or online support groups where you can meet people.
Bliss also offers a wide range of services to provide support to parents and families of babies born premature or sick, including peer-to-peer emotional support.
“We spoke to other parents on the baby unit. We became each other’s babies’ biggest cheerleaders – there were days we chatted, days we laughed and days we cried. It felt like we were all in it together.”
When will I feel ‘normal’ again?
How quickly you find your feet will depend on a whole range of factors, including:
- your experiences during pregnancy, labour and your baby’s early life
- your health and your baby’s health
- how you tend to respond to stress and change
- how much support you have from family members and friends (find out more about support at home from the community healthcare team)
- what other pressures you are facing, including work, children and other caring responsibilities
- other factors, such as your baby’s sleeping patterns.
The important thing is to take your time. Don’t be too hard on yourself or feel that you should be coping better than you are. Becoming a parent is incredibly challenging and your family is going through an incredibly difficult experience. Be kind to yourself.
I don't feel that I'm bonding with my baby. Is there something wrong?
Giving birth prematurely can interrupt the usual bonding process. There are many practical and emotional reasons why you might be finding it hard to bond with your baby. For example, you may both need time to recover from a difficult birth.
Try not to worry about how you think you 'should' feel. But if you feel very low, despairing or anxious, it’s important to talk to someone you trust on the healthcare team. They may be able to reassure you or offer you extra support.
We have more information on bonding with your baby, including tips on how to bond.
Coping if you find out your child has a disability or long-term condition
Finding out that your premature baby is likely to have a long-term health problem or disability is extremely difficult. You will need time to come to terms with this and may need emotional and financial support.
Find out more about coping if your child has a disability or long term condition.
What if I am not coping?
Some parents find the strain of coping after premature birth so overwhelming that they find it difficult to cope with day-to-day life. This is not unusual. Research has found that parents of premature babies are more likely to experience mental health problems than parents whose babies arrived full term. These may include anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you feel like things are getting out of control, it’s important to ask for help. Don’t hide your feelings or suffer in silence. You are not alone and help is available.
Find out more about mental health problems after a premature birth.
More information and support
The charity Bliss has a range of emotional and practical support. This includes an email support service, support via video call and local volunteer access. Visit the Bliss website to find out more.
The Netmums Bliss online forum is a supportive online community for parents, families or carers of babies born premature or sick.
You can also contact the Tommy’s midwives for support and advice. Call our pregnancy line for free on 0800 014 7800 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm), or email us at [email protected]
NHS. Breastfeeding and diet. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/breastfeeding-diet/ (Page last reviewed: 10 December 2018. Next review due: 10 December 2021)
NHS. Why lack of sleep is bad for your health. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/why-lack-of-sleep-is-bad-for-your-health/ (Page last reviewed: 30 May 2018. Next review due: 30 May 2021)
NHS. Grief after bereavement or loss. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/coping-with-bereavement/ (Page last reviewed: 15 October 2019. Next review due: 15 October 2022)
EFCNI, Montirosso R et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Support for parental-infant bonding. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants https://newborn-health-standards.org/support-parental-infant-bonding/
Ionio, Chiara et al. Mothers and Fathers in NICU: The Impact of Preterm Birth on Parental Distress. Europe's journal of psychology vol. 12,4 604-621. 18 Nov. 2016, doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1093