What to Expect When You're Expecting a Preemie

10 great ways to prepare for having a preemie in the NICU

Have you received the news that your baby may be born early?

While most preemies are born early as a complete surprise, sometimes parents have a bit of a heads up that they may be expecting to deliver early.

Perhaps you're expecting twins, triplets, or higher multiples? Perhaps you're on bedrest because of pre-term labor or other issues which may cause your baby to come early?

If this is the case, it makes great sense to do what you can to prepare. Here are 10 tips that will get you off to a good start.

Learn about your NICU

NICU Parents talking to neonatologist
Jupiterimages/Getty Images. Learn about your NICU

One major advantage to having advance warning about your baby being born early is that you have the opportunity to learn ahead of time. The first thing you'll want to learn about is the NICU where your baby will be staying. 

Ask for a tour of the NICU. It's good for your peace of mind to know where it is and what it looks like. Every NICU is very different, and the only thing that matters is what YOURS is like. 

If you're on strict bedrest (you might be interested in this article on some bedrest and prematurity) and you can't tour the NICU, ask to have a NICU nurse come spend some time answering your questions. 

It can also help to become familiar with the different equipment in the NICU, so it won't all come as a complete surprise. This article shows some of the most commonly seen equipment in the NICU.

Ask the right questions

question mark
Ask questions. Andy Crawford/Getty Images

It's great to have a tour, but you also want to know the answers to some common questions that parents often wish they'd asked. Start with these basic questions to get you started. 

  • When can I visit? Who can I bring to visit, and if I should limit visitors, why?
  • Will I be able to hold my baby? If not, what is the reason? And when can I look forward to this, because it's really important to me?
  • How do you assign nurses to care for my baby - will my baby have a primary nurse, or will the nurses change frequently? 
  •  Do you let parents hold skin-to-skin (kangaroo care)? How soon? What is kangaroo care? 
  • Can you tell me about how and when my baby will be fed, and can my baby have my breast milk? When will I be able to try to put baby to breast? Do you have lactation consultants, and if so how do I get one to help me when it's time to breastfeed? What if I decide against using formula? (If you want to breastfeed)
  • When will you call me - for emergencies only, for daily updates? 
  • Are there support groups in the area for families in similar situations? If not, any graduates of the NICU who would be willing to call & talk? 
  • Can you tell me some success stories of babies who have graduated from this unit with similar diagnoses?
  • Can I bring drinks in when I visit? Food? If not, where can I eat? Where might I store some food if I plan to visit for a long time?
  • Where can I stay (if you live far away)?
  • What can I bring from home for my baby -  Preemie clothes? Blankets? Stuffed animals? Photos of siblings/pets/family? 
  • Is there any kind of financial assistance available, for meals? for gas to drive to the hospital?

For a printable PDF of these questions, click here

Don't be alarmed if the doctors share grim statistics and scary diagnoses. Their job is to inform you of every possibility. Try to take it all in, but ask them to share some of the positive possibilities and good outcomes. 

Know the best online resources

NICU mom researching preemie information
Know where to find helpful information. JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images

It's great to learn more about your upcoming experience, but it's probably best to avoid random search engine searches. Those will bring up too much negative stuff, adding to your worry rather than empowering you.

So, to find some positive and informative information, visit these hopeful and inspirational websites:

Some of the largest NICU and preemie support groups include:

A word of caution, though - some of the discussions can be scary, some folks are there to share their negative stories. So if you decide to venture into the groups, be clear about what you're looking for.

Read up

Many books can help you learn about the NICU. REB Images/Getty Images

If you like to learn by reading, you might consider these books. Some will be good for those of you who want to learn it all, and others are light and easy reading that won't cause undue stress or worry. 

Many great books exist - here are some of the best out there. 

Premature Baby Book - Dr. Sears - Very thorough, kinda like a textbook

Go Preemies - inspirational look at famous preemies throughout history

Preemie Parents - inspiring book filled with great strategies to survive the NICU

Preemies - Another very thorough book that covers a wide variety of preemie issues.

The Littlest Peanut - a baby book just for preemies

Pack Ahead

Pack a NICU survival bag
Pack a NICU survival bag. Andy Crawford/Getty Images

There are some things you'll want to have when you're visiting the NICU. Take the time to pack a bag with these items:

Plan to keep in touch with friends & family

friends holding hands
Keep in touch with your loved ones. mediaphotos/Getty Images

One thing most parents of preemies find overwhelming is keeping in touch with friends and family. Everyone who loves you will wants to know what's up, but parents become exhausted updating one person after another. 

There are two really great ways to tackle this problem:

  1. Create a Facebook Page or a Caring Bridge page. With either of these methods, you can write occasional updates and many people can keep informed without you having to talk to them each individually.
  2. Ask one person whom you love and trust to be your “Point Person." This will be the one person you will talk with and update regularly, and then their job will be to handle all the phone calls and update everyone else. They can even manage the updates to your facebook page if you're not up to that.

Another think to keep in mind is this - friends and family will want to help. Please let them. If ever there was a time in your life when it was perfect to ask for and receive help, it is having a preemie.

Plan for feeding your baby

nicu breast milk bottle
Do you plan to pump?. Ceneri/Getty Images

Think about how you hope to feed your baby and ask the NICU about it. 

If you hope to breastfeed, you should be instructed to pump your breasts soon after birth to help establish your milk supply, because your baby will most likely be too small and weak in the beginning to breastfeed. 

Skin to skin contact also helps your milk supply, so ask if you can hold your baby right after birth. If your baby is extremely premature, you won't be able to hold your baby right after birth because she'll need medical attention immediately. 

But if your baby is old enough to be safe for a few minutes after birth, you can ask to have your baby placed on your chest right after birth.

This connection of skin to skin between baby and mother isn't necessary for milk production, but it can help. 

Figure out where you will stay

Where will you stay?. Esmeralda Holman / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you don't live very close to your NICU, you'll have to figure out where you'll stay while your baby is in the NICU. Ask at your hospital what NICU parents typically do.

Some options may include:

  • Rooms in the hospital for the parents
  • A Ronald McDonald house
  • Staying with a friend who lives near the hospital
  • Parking an RV close to the hospital
  • Nearby hotels or Airbnb rooms

If none of these are available or affordable, you'll want to think about how you'll get back and forth between home and the NICU after you're discharged from the hospital. Especially right after birth, you may not be able to drive yourself and may need help getting rides. 

Take care of yourself

running shoes
Commit to taking care of yourself. Westend61/Getty Images

The NICU is a stressful experience. You will likely feel overwhelmed and incredibly emotional. If you can, try to make a plan to take care of yourself. You'll benefit greatly if you do.

 Think about what helps you deal with stress - exercise, journaling, meditation - and prepare to use your best strategies to keep yourself healthy.

Promise yourself to do these things during your NICU stay. If you plan ahead, you're much more likely to stick to it. And it is really, really important. Because you're taking care of your baby by taking care of yourself. 

And please be willing to ask for help when you need it. 

Talk with your partner

Preemie Parents Talking
It's important to communicate openly. Stockbyte/Getty Images

Having a new baby is stressful enough when everything goes smoothly. When a baby is in the NICU, it can be especially hard on relationships. Often, this is because each parent reacts differently to the stress and strangeness of the NICU world.

Talking openly about your fears, your hopes, your plans for the experience will get you off to a good start.

Plan to be very patient with each other, and respect the different ways you deal with it. There is no right or wrong way to parent in the NICU, and it's stressful enough that you'll do well to support one another and commit to communicating with each other openly and honestly. 

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