Learn what to avoid saying, plus what the words you can offer when parents need it the most.


Premature babies, or preemies for short, come out earlier than expected. A baby that’s born before 37 weeks is considered premature. A full-term baby is delivered at 37 to 42 weeks, though babies are usually born at around the 38 or 39 weeks of gestation.

Multiple birth pregnancies tend to have a higher risk of being premature as the womb is too small to accommodate many foetuses, explains SmartParents expert Dr Christopher Chong, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Gleneagles Hospital.

He notes that as preemies come out of the womb before they can develop fully, some of them will encounter various health problems. He adds, “Premature babies have organs that may not be mature enough to function well, causing breathing and feeding problems. There is a higher risk of learning disorders, infections, jaundice and growth problems as well.”

However, with technological progress, preemies have a higher rate of survival. Dr Chong elaborates, “When the baby has respiratory distress, turns blue, has an infection, or requires drips and monitoring, he will be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).”

If you really want to know what baby’s condition is, try asking “How is he doing?” instead.

As the parents are probably already worried sick about their premature baby, you should try to be sensitive when you talk to them. Here’ a list of things you should avoid saying!

1. “What did you do to have a premature baby?”

While factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, infection and placental abruption can contribute to a preterm birth risk, the cause is unknown in many cases. Even if the mum is healthy, followed all her doctor’s instructions and took good care of herself, preterm labour can still happen. She might already be feeling guilty that she wasn’t able to protect her baby inside her womb, so your thoughtless remark that she might have done something wrong to trigger early labour might make her feel worse.

2. “He looks so tiny, like a little alien!”

Yes, most babies look tiny when they first arrive in this world, but especially premature babies as they have had less time to grow in the womb. Obviously, the concerned parents don’t need to be reminded how small and frail their baby looks in the incubator.

3. “What is wrong with him?”

Some preemies face developmental problems, but the majority grow up perfectly fine. Don’t just assume that just because he’s a preemie, he will face health issues. Other than arriving earlier than most of his peers, he’s perfectly well. If you really want to know what baby’s condition is, try asking “How is he doing?” instead.



4. “At least…”

Sentences like “At least your pregnancy was shorter than others”, “At least your baby came out without much problems”, or worse, “At least your baby is alive” does help to improve the situation. Mums still suffered at the beginning and middle stages of pregnancy, and would have gladly carried their baby in the womb for a few more weeks if this meant that their baby would arrive safely. Yes, there are things to be grateful for, but now is not a good time to remind the parents about it, not when they have enough on their plates worrying about their baby’s condition.

5. “Don’t fuss about cleanliness ― germs can boost their immune system!”

This might be true for older kids, but bugs may prove fatal to a preemie. As most of their organs and immunity system have yet to develop fully, they are highly susceptible to diseases and infections. Even the common cold could lead to a severe lung infection for them.

Remind them how strong they are and that their baby is strong, like them.

6. “Treasure your sleep while you still can!”

It is impossible to enjoy good sleep while your baby is stuck in the hospital. The parents will most likely be sleeping fitfully, even worrying about their little one in their dreams. If she could, the mum would rather stay awake the entire night holding and feeding her baby instead of seeing her vulnerable little newborn hooked up to tubes in the NICU.

7. “Why won’t you let me see your baby?”

Sometimes, it is not up to the parents to decide. If their little bundle is in the NICU, it’s likely that they themselves would not have spent much time with their baby either. So, don’t add to their stress by getting peeved that they have not asked you to over for a visit. Instead, gently ask when would be a good time for you to swing by. If you are sick, do be responsible and refrain from visiting until after you have recovered fully. As mentioned in #4, baby’s immunity is low, so you don’t want to be the one responsible for causing him to fall ill.

So, what should you say instead?

1. “Congratulations!”

Yes, their baby might be premature, but that doesn’t make him any less of a joy! So, congratulate the family on the new addition.

2. “You’re doing an amazing job!”

Encourage them by offering reassurance. Remind them how strong they are and that their baby is strong, like them.

3. “Can I bring…?”

Gifts/Contributions of food, baby clothes and gift cards will always be welcome. If they are home, bring a meal or order delivery for them.

4. “How can I help/Can I help with…?”

While you can ask what you can do to help, a specific offer, such as doing their laundry or groceries might be better, so that the preemie parents won’t have to think.

5. “I’m here whenever you want to talk.”

It’s a roller coaster of emotions when you’re caring for a preemie ― they’re scared, worried, hopeful and exhausted. Make it clear that you’re there ― to listen — whenever and for as long as they need.

Photos: iStock

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