Premature birth and premature babies

7min read

Having a premature baby is very challenging and emotional. Things will not be how you had planned, however the time you spend with your new-born is very special. A baby is premature if it is born before your pregnancy reaches 37 weeks. This article was written by a parent who has experienced the journey of having a premature baby.

Key Points:

  • Most premature babies will be admitted to a specialist ward at the hospital for careful monitoring, this could be for a few days, weeks or months
  • Premature births can be planned or unplanned, your hospital is well equipped to deal with both, so don’t panic if you haven’t got things ready
  • You can still discuss your birthing and feeding choices with your midwife and GP if you are having a premature baby

Planned and unplanned premature birth

It can be really worrying and distressing if you have a premature birth and it is natural to feel a whole array of emotions. Your midwife and the hospital team will provide you with lots of help and support. They will also be able to talk to you about all next steps.The NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) is where your baby might go once they are born if they need intensive, specialist care. This may also be called the HDU - High Dependency Unit. If your baby doesn’t need intensive care, they might go to the SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit). This is a lower dependency ward for premature babies. Depending on how well you and your baby are, the hospital may also recommend you can both go home, with regular support from your community midwife. 

Planned premature birth

If you know in advance that your baby may need to be delivered before 37 weeks, you can still plan for the birth as you would a full-term baby. You will still need to pack a hospital bag with items for yourself and your baby. Many supermarkets now sell premature baby supplies such as nappies, formula and clothes. You can still discuss your birth choices with your midwife. You can read more about planned premature birth options from the Tommy website

It might help to look around the ward, to help you feel a little more prepared for what’s ahead. Jot down any questions you want to ask your midwife. Consider stocking up or batch cooking some meals, plan childcare for older siblings, and enlist the support of family and friends if you can. 

Unplanned birth

Premature births can be unplanned too. You may go into labour earlier than expected, or your baby may need to be delivered early if either of you become unwell. In most cases, your premature baby will be delivered via emergency caesarean section. Your doctor or midwife will still discuss your birth options with you. The hospital is prepared for premature babies, so it’s ok if you don’t have your hospital bag and belongings with you.

After your baby is born

In terms of visiting, parents are not usually limited to visiting time restrictions. If it is safe to do so, you can usually see your baby at any time of the day or night and sit with them for as long as you wish. You may still be in hospital yourself, in which case you will be able to see your baby as soon as you are well enough.

Family members might not be able to visit straight away, perhaps they can help in other ways such as doing some shopping for you, driving, childcare or cooking a meal. If you are finding family contact a little overwhelming, it’s ok to set boundaries or to ask a trusted friend or family member to share news and updates on your behalf. 

Feeding

When your baby is born, they might be able to breast or bottle feed straight away. If not, they may need to be fed through a small soft flexible feeding tube which is gently placed into their nose and down into their stomach. You may wish to express breastmilk, use formula, or a combination of both, which can be fed into the tube.

If your baby is strong and well enough, you may be told you can move onto breast or bottle feeding. If you choose to bottle feed, you can use your own expressed milk, or you can use formula which is designed for premature babies. If you are not there, the nurse can bottle feed your baby using the formula and/or breast milk you have supplied. There is usually a fridge on the ward where you can store expressed milk.

Changing

The nurse can show you how to change your baby. Sometimes it can be tricky if they have feeding tubes and monitoring wires - don’t worry you will not be expected to know what to do straight away. 

Baby wipes can sometimes be too cold or harsh on premature baby skin. You may need to use a small dish of warm water and cotton wool to wash your baby, which the ward will usually provide. You can bring in your own premature baby nappies and clothing and leave them at the hospital. The nurses will use these when you are not there. 

Touching

Gentle touch can be very comforting for premature babies, however it is always best to check with the nurse first, to ensure it is safe to do so. Comforting touch might include: 

  • Letting your baby hold your finger
  • Gently cupping your hands around their feet, back or head
  • Kangaroo Care, holding your baby upright against your chest, usually tucked inside a loose top. You can find out more about Kangaroo Care from the Bliss website.

Our supportive tips

It is emotionally and physically challenging to spend long stretches of time on the Neonatal or SCBU ward, so please be sure to take short breaks whenever you need. If you are able to share the visiting time with a partner so you can both get rest at different times this is also very important and makes sure that you both are able to bond with your baby.

If you are worried about the cost of buying premature baby clothing your hospital might have some items that they can give to you. Many hospitals have volunteers who knit premature baby clothing too. You can speak to the team at hospital, and they may be able to give you some advice on this.

Most supermarkets now supply premature baby clothing, nappies, and formula.

The ward will give you a contact number so you can call to see how your baby is doing when you are not there. 

If you are finding it hard to cope it is important to talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling. You might want to talk to your GP or your midwife for support. 

Find a visiting and resting routine that works for you and your family, which includes downtime, meals and sleep. 

Further resources

It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at askus@familylives.org.uk or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.

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