What every new parent needs to know about caring for a premature baby

Facts and care tips to help nurture your newborn

By Asda Good Living, 24 August 2016
What every new parent needs to know about caring for a premature baby

There's no doubt that having a baby is one of life's most incredible experiences, but when parents welcome a premature baby into the world then emotions can quickly oscillate between intense joy, stress and worry. Premature babies have less time to develop in the womb, which means that they often face more challenges and difficulties in their first few months of life than babies who are born at full-term. These challenges can range from long-term health issues to daily concerns like finding clothes that fit your premature baby.

The first few days, weeks and months of a premature baby's life can be incredibly difficult and emotionally draining for the newborn and the entire family

Fortunately, thanks to modern medicine, many babies who are born prematurely can happily grow and live healthy lives. But the first few days, weeks and months of a premature baby's life can be incredibly difficult and emotionally draining for the newborn and the entire family. Find out more about premature babies, including caring tips and how parents can cope with the stress, below. 

Premature baby facts

According to pregnancy research charity Tommy's, 60,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the UK. Globally, more than 1 in 10 pregnancies will end in preterm birth (and this number is increasing). A premature baby is defined as being born before 37 weeks. There are different levels of prematurity, and generally the risk increases the earlier the birth is with babies at the highest risk being born before week 26.

Most preterm births are without any clear cause. While sometimes preterm births may be induced out of medical necessity for either the mother or baby, there is also evidence that suggests that certain factors may be risk factors for premature birth, including smoking, drinking alcohol, age and weight. It is also common for twins and multiples to be born prematurely. 

What to expect as a parent of a premature baby

If your baby is born prematurely, she may have to spend time in hospital. The amount of time can range from days to weeks to even months. "After the initial shock of seeing your baby in the unit, you will become more familiar with the hospital environment, and will gradually understand how the baby unit works," say the experts at Tommy's. "You may continue to feel very upset and anxious about your baby, but over time you will gradually adapt to your new circumstances and start to focus on developing your own vital role in supporting your baby's care."

If your baby is born prematurely, she may look and behave differently to a full-term newborn. The earlier your baby arrives, the smaller she will be. An average full-term baby weighs a little over 7 pounds when born, however a premature baby might weigh just 5 pounds or even much less. Premature newborns carry less fat than full-term babies, which can make their skin seem thinner and more transparent. In terms of behaviour, parents of a premature baby may notice that she will only cry very softly, or not at all. She may also have trouble breathing as her respiratory system is not fully developed yet.

Because of your baby's small size, finding clothes can be a challenge. That's why Asda has a whole range of premature babies clothing that's available in stores and online now. Asda’s premature baby range helps to make those first weeks easier and more comfortable for your little one. Made from 100% super soft cotton and with non-irritating seams, the range was designed with the help of neonatal units and midwives to fit babies up to 3,4 and 5 pounds. Sales from the range will be donated to Tommy's. 

How parents can cope with the stress of a premature baby

In addition to worrying about your newborn's health, parents of premature babies might feel anxious not holding, breastfeeding and bonding with their baby right after delivery. Often, parents will be unable to hold or touch their premature baby whenever they want or sleep in the same room, all of which can be emotionally unsettling and not to mention scary.

"As a first-time parent, one of the most daunting aspects of caring for a baby is feeling that she cannot tell you what she needs, or whether something is wrong. There's no right or wrong way to behave when your baby is born prematurely. Everyone responds differently but no matter how fearful you feel, somehow you will cope," advises Tommy's.

In the hospital, there any many ways parents can contribute to their newborn's wellbeing, including working with the team to make decisions about your baby's care and provide love and affection as well as warmth, nutrition and care. Spend as much time with your baby in the special-care unit as your condition - and hers - permits. Although you may be unable to hold her yet, you can still touch her often by gently stroking or letting her hold your finger. And don’t forget about using your voice - your baby could hear mum’s voice inside the womb so she’ll already be familiar with it and likely find it comforting. Making eye contact is also crucial for bonding, says Tommy's. "Look into your baby's eyes and play with her by showing different expressions, such as smiling or looking surprised."

You can feed your newborn as soon as your doctor says it's alright. Nurses will instruct you on feeding techniques and whether breastfeeding or bottle feeding is most appropriate. According to experts, breast milk will help your premature baby develop and grow. 

Most preterm babies will go home on or around their original due date and the majority will do so without needing any special equipment. However, parents will likely still need to take precautions at home such as keeping bright lights and loud noises to a minimum and making sure nobody who is sick holds the baby in order to reduce the risk of infection. 

Finally, in order to look after your baby, remember that you need to look after yourself as well. That means eating and drinking healthy foods and getting enough sleep so that you can keep energy levels up and help with the flow of breastmilk if you are expressing or breastfeeding.

To find out more about prematurity, visit Tommy's website.