Help is at hand from many sources - family, friends and the healthcare team in the special care baby unit - so don't be afraid to ask for what you need.
The first few days, weeks or months with your premature baby can be extremely tough - especially if they are very little or unwell. Below, you'll find some practical tips to help you get through it. You'll also need to take care of your emotional health.
Although you may not be able to meet all of your baby's needs at this time, they need you. Your first priority must be to make sure that you are as healthy and well as possible, so you have the emotional and physical strength to be there for them. This is not always easy if you are feeling extremely low or constantly anxious.
Taking care of yourself after the premature birth
It's easy to forget about yourself, but even if you feel as if nothing matters apart from your baby, it's important to ensure you have enough:
- baths or showers
- fresh clothes
- good food
- fluids to prevent you becoming dehydrated.
These will all play their part in helping you feel stronger and more able to cope.
What to bring for a day at the baby unit
- Cool, comfortable clothing for you, because the baby unit will be very warm
- Comfortable shoes or slippers
- Moisturiser and lip balm to stop your skin from drying out
- Maternity pads and breast pads if you're going to be there for the whole day
- Nappies for premature babies
- Ear plugs, for sleeping and resting in the bustling hospital environment
- An eye mask, for sleeping in bright light
- Headphones and music, for switching off and relaxing
- Some form of entertainment, such as a portable DVD player with headphones, a book or magazine, so you can get a break
- A device for internet access (smartphone or laptop) if you have one, so you can contact friends and family or join online support groups/forums
- A notebook or diary, to make notes or write down anything the doctor says.
Getting practical help from others
When family and friends offer to help, think about practical ways that will free you up to focus on your baby. People often want to help but feel powerless, and may not know what to say or do. It can help if you tell them exactly what you need.
Some areas where they could help out:
- preparing food that is easy to re-heat/cook for you and your partner
- minding animals/bringing a dog for a walk if you have one
- doing the shopping
- picking up other children/bringing other children on outings
- researching something for you - this could be anything, from benefits you may be entitled to, cheap places to eat near the hospital or places to stay near the hospital - anything that makes your life simpler
- shopping/researching baby gear for your baby's eventual arrival at home
- offering driving services if you don't have a car - for shopping or any other journeys
- helping your other children with homework
- meeting you for lunch on occasion.
Getting emotional support after premature birth
If you feel that things are getting too much for you, talk to someone you feel will understand. This may be someone you know or a member of staff. The hospital may be able to offer you specialist support, such as counselling.
Confide in the healthcare team
While your baby is in the baby unit you will be very dependent on the staff there, but don't be afraid to ask questions and get involved. The staff will be used to supporting families in your situation. If you have any concerns or worries, try talking to a team member who you feel you get on with.
Your partner and family
Take advantage of any help you can get. It is important to talk to your partner and close family about what role they will play during this challenging period in your life. You may have different ideas about how involved they will be at this time. Your decision will depend partly on whether they need to be at work, or looking after your other children if you have any.
Take it easy when you are away from the baby unit if possible. You may need to remind others that even if you don't have a baby in your arms, you have only recently given birth and need a rest from the household chores.
Keeping your friends and family updated
Keeping everyone in the loop about your baby's progress can be time-consuming and stressful, especially when he is in a fragile condition. You may find it helpful to delegate this task to one person, whom you can trust to contact others in your circle. You could also ask an IT-literate friend to set up a blog (or set one up yourself) and email them with the progress regularly. Then you can signpost this site to all your friends/family. You could also use this medium to ask for help with anything that's needed.
Each unit will have a different policy about visitors. Many encourage partners and siblings to visit regularly, so that the baby gets used to their voices. Other visitors may be allowed, but not too many at a time, and they may be asked not to touch your baby, as at this stage he will be very susceptible to infection.
Put yourself first. You may find visits stressful as you have to think about someone else when all you want to think about is your baby. If this is the case, keep visits to a minimum. Your health and sanity is more important than having your friends visit. On the other hand visits might bring you much-needed respite, an opportunity to talk and think about something other than your sick baby. If this is the case encourage visitors.
Communicate your feelings
If you feel like crying, do; if you feel like shouting, go somewhere where it won't bother people and shout. Letting out your sadness and worry is important. Don't feel guilty if you feel like you're going to pieces. Crying is a coping strategy. The doctors and nurses in the baby unit will be accustomed to all sorts of reactions. Your partner will be going through similar stress and is likely to understand how you feel.
Stressful times can bring people closer together, but also cause disagreements, so it's important to communicate your feelings and needs as clearly as possible, and give everyone a chance to express how they are feeling.
Nurturing your other children
If you have older children, they may react to your premature baby in a number of ways. They may be very worried about the new baby, and need reassurance. They are likely to notice that you are upset and find this very upsetting themselves.
- Keep your children's lives as normal as possible. If they find it hard to understand what's happening, they may appear uninterested. They may also be jealous, among older and younger siblings alike - a very natural reaction to a new sibling - and they may resent the time that you are spending with the new baby, not to mention the emotional upheaval and the disruption to their normal routine.
- Encourage them to bond with their new sibling. Try to give your children a sense of ownership of the baby by calling him 'your brother' or 'your baby', and help them to carry out small tasks to look after the baby. Older children might be able to hold or feed him, while you could help younger children to stroke him, draw a picture for him, or tell their friends about him.
- Be there for them when you can. Make sure you explain what is happening and spend some time alone with your other children - away from your baby - listening to them talk about their needs, fears and achievements. They still need you too.