Caring for a premature baby is not something most of us ever consider. But for hundreds of mums and dads, a little bundle can arrive earlier than expected. Emma Henderson, a maternity nurse and nanny consultant has written this informative article to help parents cope with the unexpected.

Every year, approximately 70,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK, that’s about one in every eight babies. “The parents go through serious trauma which only time can heal,” says a leading psychoanalyst. The shock is all the more great if a baby is born underweight (e.g. under a kilogram), as this requires a long hospitalisation period and daily fear with each vital prognosis. “The baby is not the only one before its due date, the mother is too! She has been deprived of the third stage of pregnancy which usually serves as the preparatory stage for the separation between her and the baby she is carrying,” the psychoanalyst adds. Here is our suggested advice on how to best approach the return home.

Don’t turn your home into a hospital

There is the temptation to try and recreate the sterilised environment of the hospital, as a means of clinging on to what is familiar to you. But shutting yourself in a glass cage like this is not necessary; a baby that has been allowed to go home is a baby that is healthy and well. The only drawback is that given the frailty of their breathing, the smallest cough can quickly turn into severe bronchitis. You should ensure that any brothers or sisters do not sneeze over them, except in cases of more strict instructions from a doctor.

Allow visitors

There is no use in cutting yourself off from the rest of the world. A baby’s siblings and grandparents will see them in a much more relaxed way than its parents, and this can only be good for the little one. A premature baby needs to have varied sensory experiences in order to develop, such as being held in the arms of someone other than its mother, and hearing other people’s voices.

Don’t focus too much on feeding

During their hospitalisation, premature babies are subject to a certain form of attack in terms of their oral cavity, due to the amount of intubation and feeding tubes necessary. “It is not uncommon, therefore, that anything that comes anywhere near their mouth, in essence, any food, can be very disconcerting,” adds a senior paediatrician. As it is highly unlikely that parents are going to be calm in this matter, hospital staff will thoroughly examine a baby’s weight, which largely dictates the conditions allowing them to leave the hospital. “Often, on returning home, parents take this medical requirement into their own hands, and can have the tendency to over-feed their baby,” explains the paediatrician. “In this way, a force-fed child will not feel any pleasure in eating, and rejection and opposition risk setting in, which at times can have long-lasting effects,” warns the psychoanalyst. If your baby refuses to feed, it is said to be better to abandon the meal without any negativity or anxiety, and to tell yourself that they will eat better next time.

Avoid making comparisons

By their very nature, all parents make comparisons between their baby and another. This overarching need for reference points can soar when a baby is born prematurely. From the moment the baby arrives, medical staff will explain to parents that it is impossible to predict a baby’s intellectual and motor skills, and that they should remain attentive so as to be able to detect any potential difficulties. “This cautionary message is absolutely essential, but can also be deeply anxiety-inducing for the parents, and therefore a burden on the baby; being under constant scrutiny is hardly conducive of progression and development.  Parents who insist too much on, for example, learning to walk, can actually end up delaying the learning process. Typically, a child will begin walking at around 16 months or older, and this has nothing to do with potential consequences of their prematurity!” the paediatrician points out. So what is the secret to a ‘healthy’ attitude? First of all, don’t panic. “Around 5% of premature babies (10% of which weigh less a kilogram) will encounter some development difficulties, which will not necessarily become a handicap. This means that around 90-95% will have no troubles at all,” emphasises the paediatrician. Finally, trust the professionals. All that the parents need to do is to follow regular and thorough after-care of their baby, as advised by their paediatrician.

The long road to self-sufficiency

Many parents of premature babies find it difficult to place limits on their little baby. “When there are serious threats weighing upon the life of a baby, the parents don’t always manage to take any other approach than that of permissiveness – by not placing a ban on anything, they are giving their child the permission, or the order, if you will, to live life to the full. For these parents, imposing limits hinders the growth of the child that they want so desperately to see becoming big and strong”. Try to be aware of this, in order to find a solution. “The more you impose these limits, the more you give up their compulsion, and the more they will become distressed,” insists the psychoanalyst.

Keeping the right distance

“Quite often, mothers do not cope well with being separated from their baby. As soon as they are separated, they feel as though they are reliving the sense of loss they experienced the moment their baby was taken away from them to be hooked up to machines. With each of these separations, the constant threat of death is hanging over them,” says the psychoanalyst. However, a premature baby needs a certain minimum amount of distance in order to live through these experiences and gain their independence. If it becomes too distressing, parents can begin by confiding in the grandparents for support. If these separations become absolutely unbearable, a psychologist will be able to help them overcome the ordeal they have gone through.