"How old is your baby?" It's a frustrating question for preemie parents

Why this simple question can hurt, and what you can do about it

preemie NICU graduate 3 months corrected age
Paul Vozdic/Getty Images

Allow me to share a story with you. It's a story of a mother - we'll call her Sara - and her son - we'll call him Jermaine. Sara's been through a lot, because Jermaine had to spend the first 3 months of his life not in the arms of his adoring, loving mom, but in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Why? Because he was born 3 months prematurely.

Jermaine was a critically ill preemie. He struggled to live, required blood transfusions, life-saving medications, breathing machines and much more.

Those 3 months were nearly unbearable for Sara, who didn't know if her baby would survive, and if he did, whether he would be healthy or not.

After overcoming all the major hurdles - after surgery, after months of learning to eat, when he was gaining weight and taking milk on his own - Jermaine finally got to go home right around his due date. Even though he was actually 3 months old already, he looked like and behaved like a newborn baby on his due date (which is exactly how he should be looking and acting.)

Sara had three scary, frustrating, worrisome months in the NICU, and now she's had 3 wonderful months of mothering her baby in the comfort of her home. Jermaine is now 6 months old.

So, today when Sara is standing in line at the grocery store with Jermaine in her arms, a well-meaning stranger leans in and asks:

"How old is your baby?"

Sara cringes. How should she answer this question?

Here's why this is so hard for Sara to answer:

  • Jermaine is actually 6 months old - his birth date was 6 months ago.
  • He only looks like a 3 month old, because he is only 3 months from his due date.
  • He should only be acting like a 3 month old, because he is only 3 months from his due date.
  • So - although his actual age is 6 months, his adjusted gestational age (or corrected gestational age) is only 3 months.
  • There is a big difference between how 3-month-olds and 6-month-olds look and act, which means Jermaine does not look or act like his actual age, he looks and acts more like his corrected age.

While the stranger means no harm by asking - she's merely being friendly - this question can be particularly upsetting for a preemie parent for many reasons.

First, it reminds parents of the stress of the entire NICU experience.  Any reminders of that scary time are painful for many parents of premature babies.  In fact, many parents suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the intense stress caused by having a critically ill premature baby.

Also, if parents answer most honestly ("He's 6 months old"), they'll be faced with either stares of disbelief or they'll be asked questions about why the baby looks so small, sleeps so much, isn't smiling, etc, which the parent might just not want to have to answer.

Worse yet, people tend say things that are upsetting, such as "Will he be ok?" or "Will he ever catch up?" or "Is he normal?" or "Why was he born so early?" which, as you can imagine, are not the kinds of questions most people want to discuss with total strangers.

They don't even want to think about them at all, because preemie parents worry about these same things themselves, and they often don't have the answers.

So, what's a parent to do?

How do you answer that all-too-common question about the age of your baby, when talking to strangers?

There's no right or wrong way. It depends on you, the parent. You get to decide.

Some parents are very proud of everything they've gone through, and they don't mind doing a bit of educating. These parents will often say something like "My baby is 6 months old but he only looks 3 months old because he was born 3 months early."

Other parents have no interest in explaining their story or enduring unwelcome comments, so they'll simply say "he's about 3 months old" and leave it at that. This will raise many fewer questions, because he looks 3 months old and will satisfy the curiosity. It's ok to give the simple answer, no explanations needed.

And how can you be most sensitive to this question?

If you're on the other side of the situation, and you've just kindly asked someone about their baby, please keep in mind that if a baby seems unusual in any way - big for her age or small for her age, or if she has unusual skin tone or has a funny shaped head or anything else you might find comment-worthy - the parents most likely do not want to have a conversation with you - a stranger -  about it. You never know what they've been through.

You can offer a wonderful kindness by simply commenting on how cute the baby is, or what a sweet smile he has, or anything else positive you can muster, and leave it at that. You'll make someone's day by just noticing the positive and not probing with questions.

While some parents love to share their stories with anyone and everyone, most NICU parents wish strangers wouldn't ask or comment about their baby in ways that are upsetting. Because you never know who has been in the NICU and who hasn't, play it safe by keeping your questions and comments light and positive, and you'll be sure to make someone's day!

Continue Reading