Mistakes You Make When Talking to a Preemie Mom

Ariana Taylor

When I was taking my little ones out for a walk today, we passed a woman with a stroller. In the stroller was a very tiny baby. He was dressed in an adorable blue outfit, had an NG tube in his nose, and some other medical gear that I wasn’t as familiar with. We chatted briefly and then my kids and I continued on our walk.

After our conversation, I realized that I have a unique perspective that helps me to talk with mothers of children with medical issues: I’ve been there. I’ve survived the hospital stay, been out with a baby with special equipment, and know the feeling of being so alone.

But many just don’t know how to talk with a mom of a preemie. When my little guy was little, I had so many conversations with strangers that went badly.

I even ended up crying after a few. (The worst was when an acquaintance said to me, “I think that young mother was staring at your baby (who had an NG tube) because she was so happy to have a normal baby. She’s probably never seen a baby like yours before.” My stomach still gets in knots when I think about it.)

So, I’ve decided to write about my interaction with the mom I met today to give some suggestions on how to (and how not to) talk to someone who has a preemie. Of course, every parent is different, so some of these comments may not bother everyone. Also, I’m not saying that my responses are perfect for every situation. I’d just like to share my experience.

Our Conversation, Part 1

I see the mother pushing the stroller of the little guy. They are just off of the sidewalk on the left, and she’s pushing him back and forth like she’s trying to get him to sleep. I see that she looks stressed and that he looks tiny. The equipment tells me that he may have some medical issues.

Mistakes People Make

1. Go close to or touch the baby. Preemies are especially susceptible to germs. You may not even feel sick, but the germs on you could send the baby to the hospital. Sometimes preemies can’t get vaccinations on schedule, so they are particularly vulnerable. So keep your distance.

2. Start the conversation by saying, “What’s wrong with him?” or “Why is he so small?” You would think that this wouldn’t need to be said, but these things were said to me WAY too many times to count. Once I got upset about the same stupid questions (it was a stressful day) and I was accused of being too sensitive when someone was just “curious” about my baby. When you ask in this way, it doesn’t sound like you’re being curious. It is intrusive and, frankly, rude.

A Better Option

I made sure that my kids and I were a few feet away (kept our distance), looked at him adoringly and said, “Looks like you have a new little one there! He’s so cute!” (Focus on the positives, not on the differences.)

Our Conversation, Part 2

She said thank you and explained that he had been six weeks premature and that his due date is tomorrow. “He’s only 6 pounds,” she said, clearly trying to explain why he looks so tiny.

(This may seem like a lot of information to tell a stranger, but when you get the “Why is he so small?” questions often, you just explain automatically. Even now that my little guy is starting to catch up in size a bit, I still find myself automatically explaining that he was a preemie and small for his age when someone asks how old he is.)

Mistakes People Make

1. Be awkward. Often people don’t know what to say when a parent tells them that the baby was premature or describes any conditions or medical equipment he may have. But if you just nod and walk away, everyone feels awkward.

2. Say, “He was premature and he’s only 6 weeks old? Why is he outside?!?” The unwanted advice comes from everywhere when you have a preemie. But let me tell you, that parent knows so much more about her baby and his condition than you could even imagine. She has specialists on speed-dial and instructions out the wazoo to follow to keep him healthy and safe. Believe me, she knows what she is doing. She doesn’t need your advice unless she asks for it. (And who would ask a stranger for advice?)

A Better Option

I said, “His due date is tomorrow and he’s home already? That’s wonderful!” (Often the goal, unless there are complications, are to get the baby home by his or her due date.)

Our Conversation, Part 3

Then I oohed and ahhed over how cute he was. (He was pretty darn adorable!) And the mom went on about how difficult it is to have a child in the hospital for an extended period of time and talked a bit about his medical issues.

Mistakes People Make

1. Say, “Well, don’t worry. He’ll be fine.” I think that people say this when they don’t know what else to say, but it’s insulting. Parents of preemies have seen and been through things that you couldn’t imagine. They know that things can get precarious in a moment. And to say “He’ll be fine” is dismissing all of the hard work that the parents are doing every moment of every day to keep him as healthy and happy as possible. There is worry and work to make him “fine”. He won’t get there through good thoughts alone.

2. Say, “Yeah, I was in the hospital for a week once for an infection. I know what you mean. It sucks.” Um, no. No, you don’t. Now walk away before I hit you with the overweight diaper bag on my shoulder.

A Better Option

I said, “Well, he looks like he’s doing well today. You must be doing a really great job.”

Moms of preemies are exhausted, scared, and stressed. In the short term, they worry that they’ll miss a specialist appointment or mix up medications. In the long term, they worry about what the future holds for their child. They endure stares and comments when they take their baby out. It’s a near-impossible experience, emotionally and physically. So be nice.

And maybe even go beyond just “nice” and tell them that they must be doing something right. And say it sincerely. Because there are many days when moms of preemies feel guilty or overwhelmed or just plain sad. Sometimes it’s nice to hear that someone sees and appreciates all that you’re doing.

When I told the mom that she must be doing a great job, she lit up. “We made it out of the hospital,” she said, clearly proud of herself and her son.

As we said our goodbyes, I could see that she was still tired and stressed, but she was smiling. It’s amazing what a little good conversation can do for your day when you are a mom to a preemie.

Moms of preemies – What mistakes have you heard people say to you?

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Ariana Taylor a health, fitness expert and personal trainer, life coach, blogger, my mission is to cut through the sound in the health and fitness industry and to empower women to create supportable solutions for mental health, happiness, and self-as

Los Angeles County, CA
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