I was overwhelmed by the love and support given to us after Olivia’s early arrival. So many people wanted to know how to help our family during this difficult transition. Asking and receiving help, especially when you are still processing so many raw emotions and your mind feels scattered, is complicated. On the one hand, you don’t want to feel like a burden and aren’t even sure of what you need. On the other, you recognize that your family is quite literally in a crisis where all the “unknowns” can breed an overwhelming and isolating case of fear.
I’ve thought a lot about the very early days of Olivia’s arrival- what worked for us, how we struggled, and the small gestures of support from family and friends that really made a big difference. We didn’t have hardly ANYTHING prepared before Olivia’s arrival. While not an exhaustive list, here are several suggestions for helping a new mama of a preemie:
1. Offer to prepare dinners or freezer meals.
Several friends prepared meals for us- I honestly don’t know what I would have done with these beautiful care packages. In addition to shuffling back and forth to the hospital, James went back to work so he could take some time off when she was discharged. In the meantime, I attempted to pump every 3 hours to establish a milk supply. It was incredibly helpful not to worry about what we were going to eat at night.
2. Find and share educational material on preemies.
I didn’t have a clue on what to expect with a premature infant. I turned to Pinterest to explore articles and information that might be relevant to our situation. The website, Hand to Hold, and the blog, Preemie 101, were particularly helpful. Unfortunately, I simply didn’t have time to read everything I wanted to in order to be an informed advocate for Olivia. For instance, after reading The Premature Baby Book, I would have been much more insistent that we start kangaroo care with our girl sooner. I also would have highly encouraged the hospital to use slow flow nipples when they fed Olivia a bottle to make breastfeeding attempts easier in the long run.
- Ask if you can help find articles or books on the latest research concerning kangaroo care, feeding challenges, etc…ANYTHING relevant to preemie care.
- If you know of another mom in the area that has gone through a similar situation, offer to connect this resource to the new mama.
3. Provide emotional support.
For all of the support we received, there were occasional comments that really got under my skin. In an attempt to help me focus on the positive, several nurses told me, “Wow, she would have been a 10 pound baby if she had gone to term- aren’t you glad you didn’t have to push that out?!” I start to cringe even thinking about these words as defensive alarms blast through my brain. First of all, my precious baby was right on track in terms of her growth and would have probably been close to 8.5 pounds at birth. Second, I would have given ANYTHING to keep her safely protected inside of me until she was able to breathe on her own comfortably. I would have gladly pushed out a 10 or 11-pounder if that meant I didn’t have see my girl hooked up to various machines struggling to inflate her lungs.
Some others commented, “well at least you can catch up on your sleep while Olivia is being cared for at the hospital.” If it were only this simple. If only I didn’t feel guilty every minute we weren’t with Olivia at the hospital. If only I didn’t have to pump every 3 hours, even in the middle of the night. If only we weren’t in store for several “extra” weeks of sleepless nights that most parents experience.
I share these stories because words are so powerful, especially when they are directed at a hormonal and scared new mama. I needed the people closest to me to listen to our unfolding drama and stand with me in awkwardness of waiting. We had a LOT to be grateful for…. but, I didn’t need someone constantly reminding me to be positive, especially when we received news that one of Olivia’s newborn screenings was flagged. Our fears and accompanying losses, including our grief over an incomplete pregnancy and the typical newborn experience, needed space to be processed and not simply dismissed because Olivia was making progress.
Our supporters were our greatest cheerleaders, celebrating our perseverance and Olivia’s milestones. At the same time, they validated our feelings and acknowledged everything we had been through.
4. Offer breastfeeding/pumping support.
Breastfeeding can be a challenge when dealing with a full term newborn. It is an entirely different ballgame with a preemie. Instead of cuddling and bonding with my newborn, I was handed a pump. I won’t go into the full saga of how my breastfeeding story unfolded here, but I will say I was (and still am to this day) continually amazed at how much judgment exists on this particular issue from both sides.
For mama’s that choose to pump for their preemies, here are a few ideas on how to be supportive in this area:
- Highly encourage her to rent a hospital grade pump, like the Medela Symphony, to establish a supply. (They also make a version of this pump that is tailored for moms that are beginning to pump for preemies.)
- Insist that a lactation specialist visually observe her pumping efforts before she leaves the hospital to make sure that the pump is working correctly and the pump flanges are the correct size. Medela, for instance, manufactures 5 different sizes of breast shields to provide optimal comfort. I learned the hard way that the particular brand and style of pump can make a huge difference in how effectively milk is released.
- Ask your friend if she already has a hands free pumping bra. If not, offer to go get one for her.
- I didn’t have time to read The Nursing Mother’s Companion before Olivia’s birth. Offer to read a few chapters (particularly chapters 2-4) and give her the bullet points of what to expect and what’s normal.
- Offer to get her this supplement to help produce more milk: Motherlove More Milk.
- Send her funny texts during her regular pumping sessions.
- When difficulties arise, remind her multiple times that she isn’t a failure if she isn’t able to keep up with her preemie’s increasing demand. This article might be helpful: Changing the Definition of “Nursing” Your Preemie.
5. Provide a basket of snacks on the go.
I was incredibly hungry ALL the time when I first started pumping. It was so handy to have the following snacks on hand: clementines, whole almonds, chocolate covered blueberries, mozzarella sticks, and my favorite wheat crackers from Trader Joe’s. A dear friend brought us a batch of homemade brownies the day after Olivia’s birth. What a gift! Don’t underestimate the power of surprising a new mama with a thoughtful treat.
6. Purchase one or two preemie outfits.
Dressing Olivia in her own clothes was a definite milestone while in the Special Care Unit. Good friends and family gave us several adorable preemie outfits that were so essential for her tiny size. It was so handy to have these outfits ready to go. Changing Olivia’s diaper and dressing her in her own clothes somehow humanized our situation, even when she was still connected to so many machines. These mundane tasks were simply NORMAL parts of being a new parents.
Any errand that a new mama doesn’t have to run is also a gift of time. Since I didn’t need to go out looking for preemie clothing, I was able to spend more time either at the hospital or resting at home.
7. Offer to help organize.
My parents came over one afternoon and helped us arrange furniture and hang a couple of pieces of artwork in Olivia’s nursery. Was this a necessary action? Absolutely not. It was, however, immensely helpful for me in terms of feeling ready for our girl to come home from the hospital. Clearing the clutter and restoring order to her space was incredibly healing for me.
Ask a new mama if there are any “rituals of readiness” you can help her complete. I remember staying up late one evening to remove the tags from all the beautiful outfits we received at Olivia’s shower. I then sacrificed several precious hours of sleep to complete a marathon of laundry to get her all of her clothes ready. I also had to find time earlier in the day to run out and buy a baby friendly detergent. In hindsight, asking someone to help me wash all of Olivia’s new outfits would have been extremely helpful.
8. Explain the value of probiotics.
My doula warned me that I was particular susceptible to getting thrush on my breasts due to the multiple rounds of antibiotics they pumped through my system while I was in labor. I truly wish that I had followed up with some research on which brands are most helpful and how much to take. My particular case of thrush did not present itself in a typical fashion- I could have saved myself weeks of painful pumping and attempts of breastfeeding. I had wonderful success getting rid of thrush for good after reading the 3-Day Get Rid of Thrush Cure by Rebecca Haworth. What I loved the most: she provided recommendations on specific brands of probiotics.
9. Be specific with your offers to help.
Take your kind offer to help one step further by being specific. Since my focus was split in so many directions, it was hard to know exactly what I needed before I needed it. By educating yourself on the world of preemies you can ask more targeted questions like “Do you need xyz?” or “Can I help you with xyz?
10. Don’t underestimate the power of your responses to progress reports.
Believe it or not, it takes quite a bit of time to craft an email that provides the latest updates to family and friends. I am so appreciative to those that responded with loving and supportive words when we sent out an progress report. The reverse is true as well: it’s hard to forget which family members and friends were completely silent in response to such a life changing event.
Bottom line: Be responsive without any expectations. In my own experience, I wasn’t always able to respond to emails in a timely fashion. My thank you cards for loving care packages weren’t sent within the proper 2-week turnaround time frame. But, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t cherish every kind word and gesture extended to our family during Olivia’s hospital stay.