Mistakes You Make When Talking To A Preemie Mom

Mistakes You Make When Talking To A Preemie Mom (That Make You Look Dumb)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 of 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.


Mistakes You Make When Talking To A Preemie Mom (That Make You Look Dumb) - Myth Busting Mommy

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 equiptment 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 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 a 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.


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


Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

33 Comments on Mistakes You Make When Talking To A Preemie Mom

  1. becca
    September 26, 2013 at 1:27 pm (3 years ago)

    People picked on Emalee (2 months premature) because her body proportions were off. She had a really big head and ppl never failed to point it out or say “don’t worry, I’m sure she will adjust or grow into it.” It really ticked me off…
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    • Amber Schultz
      September 26, 2013 at 5:37 pm (3 years ago)

      I really hated/still hate all the “don’t worry” comments. Because you are worrying, like you SHOULD be.

  2. Anonymous
    September 26, 2013 at 3:16 pm (3 years ago)

    Thank you for posting this. It was spot on. My daughter was born 13 weeks early and I encountered every one of these. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, caring for my teeny tiny baby. And dealing with other people made it worse. I’ve never felt so alone and scared and helpless as I did the first year of her life. The guilt still eats away at me. So thank you for this. It makes me feel like I am normal. Being a preemie mom took “normal” away from me for a long time.

    • Amber Schultz
      September 26, 2013 at 5:56 pm (3 years ago)

      First of all, hugs to you and your daughter.

      Your story really touched me. It goes to show how scary and isolating being a Preemie Mom can be. You leave the hospital with a list of specialist appointments, some equipment, and an incredibly delicate baby. It’s really more than any mom can handle without a support system that knows exactly what you’re going through. And I don’t even know if there is such a thing.

      And it’s so easy to feel guilty when you’re doing everything humanly possible to keep your baby safe and healthy. It seems the best moms always feel the guiltiest. But you made it through the first year, and that’s amazing! Congratulations!

    • Justice
      April 29, 2016 at 7:21 pm (6 months ago)

      Thanks for cotnniburitg. It’s helped me understand the issues.

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  3. Becca @ Cheering On Charlie
    September 26, 2013 at 11:14 pm (3 years ago)

    Loved this! Another great post from you. :)

    I have to say it also really bothers me when people bring God into the mix. Such as “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” or “Praise God for saving your baby”

    It really annoys me on so many levels that it could be a post all its own.
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    • Amber Schultz
      September 27, 2013 at 8:42 am (3 years ago)

      I couldn’t agree with you more about the God comments. I got a lot of comments relating to God when my first child was stillborn too. “This is what God wanted” or “God wanted your baby to be with him” did not make me feel better (as I think the comments were meant to), they just made me more upset.

      Maybe it should be a post all its own. Hmmm….

  4. Kasondra
    September 28, 2013 at 6:26 pm (3 years ago)

    I loved this! I don’t have a preemie but I have a friend who had TWO micro preemies (23/24 and 26 weeks I believe) I’ve seen a lot of her struggles and applaud you for speaking out and giving advice for those of us that just CAN’T understand.
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    • Amber Schultz
      October 1, 2013 at 3:32 pm (3 years ago)

      Wow, your friend must be quite a woman to have cared for two micro preemies. I hope they are all doing well now!

  5. Barbara
    October 1, 2013 at 6:37 am (3 years ago)

    Thanks for raising such issue, it is really very sensitive matter. One of the worst thing is that people any unwise comment from close relatives could matter a lot. When my sister given birth, a tiny sized baby, she was preemie mom, people surrounded her, commented unwisely. She broke down with cry. Few of them, consoled her.
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    • Amber Schultz
      October 1, 2013 at 3:31 pm (3 years ago)

      It is definitely more difficult if the comments come from a relative. Hope your sister and her little one are doing well!

  6. Mitzi
    December 19, 2013 at 9:11 am (3 years ago)

    The worst for me was random strangers scolding me for not supporting his head when I held him. He was actually 6 months old, 4 months corrected, and he was the size of a newborn. However, he could hold his head up perfectly fine, but still the scolding and harsh comments from strangers and even friends kept coming.

  7. Robyn
    November 4, 2014 at 3:44 pm (2 years ago)

    I think people are in general clueless. I had multiple people ask how old my 29 weekers were at various times and each time I said “7 months” or whatever, they would say “WOW they’re so big!” Yeah, they were not even ON the growth chart for their actual age. I would just try to contain my eye roll and say thanks and walk away.

  8. Sarah
    November 19, 2014 at 11:27 pm (2 years ago)

    My son is 14 mo actual, 11 mo corrected born at 24 wks. He is doing really well now, off O2, no other current issues besides his glasses. I am so tired of people acting like everything is back to normal! Like the fact that he is doing well erases everything that we have been through and that something is wrong with me if I get emotional a time or two about something in the past, emotional about our 5 mo NICU stay, or fears about if his IVH will effect him, or remembering the days he nearly died. The NICU stay changes you and there is a lot of hurt, fears and pain from going through something so traumatic. Those things don’t just disappear when your baby hits milestones. And there is nothing wrong with you to have this grief. I hate it when people ask if I have gotten professional help. None of their business!! And when your child almost dies it is normal for you to be emotional at times even a year later.

  9. Alana | Rockstar Preemies
    January 9, 2015 at 6:45 pm (2 years ago)

    This is so, so, so, true! I’ve heard all this stuff as a mom of 25 weeker twins, and it hurts, even if it’s probably well-intentioned. My biggest gripe now that my kids are toddlers is when people feel entitled to say something about how they can tell my daughter is a preemie because of the way she looks. It seems like they’re trying to be clever, or to let me know that they know about preemies, but all it sounds like to me is “there’s something wrong with your kid”. My amazing girl, who’s overcome so much!!! There is no easier way to make me hate you than making a comment like that.
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  10. Javier
    January 27, 2015 at 10:06 pm (2 years ago)

    My wife and I had 24 weeks + 3 days baby girl twins. Some of the worst comments were: “They look like Mexican dolls” – due to the strong pink color of their skin because of the UV light they needed to help with the bilirubin.
    “They look like newborn birds fallen from the nest” – Seriously, c’mon! Sometimes people can’t keep their own thoughts for themselves.
    One Huge advise for the relatives and friends of the parents of a preemie: NEVER comment again in front of them how the baby looked like when in the NICU. We parents remember how they did look and all the tubes and machinery they had connected, no need for more reminders.

    Thankfully, my baby girls are now at home but it was a loooong journey of 107 days in the NICU.

  11. Courtney
    March 12, 2015 at 12:21 am (2 years ago)

    Thank you for this! It brought me to tears. My preemie has been home for 4 wonderful months. And my heart breaks for that mom, she is doing an amazing job and it’s funny how people never tell you that. Always trying to tell you what they did with their full term babies and let’s be honest it is not the same. My husband got frustrated for the first time when a friends wife asked him if our little one was sitting up yet. He explained to her (yet again) that she probably will not be sitting up for awhile. Not only do preemie moms have to be strong. We also have to be patient and dismiss the stupid things people say. God bless you all and your beautiful amazing preemies!

  12. Emily
    April 5, 2015 at 3:52 pm (2 years ago)

    My baby was 14 weeks early and my “father” who was just entering my life and meeting my daughter for the first time kept commenting how long her arms were and said they resembled monkey arms. I was ready to punch him in the face. The question I usually get is “what happened?” Followed a condescending “ooooooh” with a sad look on their face. I also hate when my daughter is referred to as sick. She’s not “sick” she’s small! So many people walking around not knowing what to say JUST DONT SAY ANYTHING!

  13. Kirsty
    April 7, 2015 at 3:32 am (2 years ago)

    Great post! Right on. Good for you to be able to take your own experience and use it to know how to be more kind and sensitive to others :-) we got many comments that were upsetting and even more that were annoying (“preemie? But he looks so normal!” “Wow, his head looks weird – will it get better?” And definitely the “yeah, I spent X amount of days in the hospital”). The most hurtful one though was a close family member getting tears when they saw the picture of my newborn 27 weeker and saying “He just makes me sick to see those pictures. I hope next time you can have a normal baby.” Amazing how much our words can affect people even when they’re not meant in a cruel way. Thanks for using your words to encourage others :-)

  14. Barb
    April 19, 2015 at 8:11 pm (2 years ago)

    My son was 4 weeks early. He was 5 pounds 11 ounces so he wasn’t considered preemie at all. I still got many comments about his bird-like appearance. My aunt called him bird for a long time. But that isn’t why I’m writing…

    As I read this blog, all I could think about is the rude, horrible, completely ignorant comments that I receive from friends, family, and strangers who decide to discuss the suicide attempt that my 17 year old son made last September. No, he isn’t fine. Yes he sees a counselor. Yes he takes medication. Yes I worry constantly. No it isn’t over and I don’t know when I can say that he is well. This didn’t end when he walked out of the hospital. It is a rocky road of ups and downs, just as the stories that I read here. Well meaning people should just keep their mouths closed if they can’t find it in themselves to say something like, “You are a great mom. I will keep you and your son in my prayers.”

    • Emily
      July 21, 2016 at 9:14 am (3 months ago)

      If inaftmorion were soccer, this would be a goooooal!

  15. Tresha
    May 22, 2015 at 10:06 am (1 year ago)

    My preemie is now 17, but some of the hurtful comments still ring in my ears. I was a young mom (19) when he was born, so when I would explain that he was a preemie, out would come the judgements, questions, etc. The most hurtful I ever received was an older gentleman asking me if he was this way because I used drugs. Then of course were the comments like, “Wow! He looks so normal! Are you sure he’s sick?” “He looks weird, are you sure it’s safe for my kid to be around him?” or “Are you sure this is necessary? Does he really need those medicines?” “He looks perfectly fine to me!” “Why was he even in the NICU? He was only a month premature, it’s not like he’s a real preemie!”

    What was even worse, is that since he was 35 weeks, the other NICU parents often didn’t see that despite being further along he was in as much danger as their micro-preemies. He still had the immature lungs, NG tubes, perforated bowel, pneumo-thorax, early corrective surgeries, and many nights with the whole staff and family holding our breaths that he would make it through the night. Many times parents of the micro preemies would make comments like, “At least you don’t have as much to worry about!” or “You guys aren’t in real danger, you don’t even belong here!” So the well-intentioned, hurtful comments can come from both sides and both perspectives. NICU parents really are very supportive of each other, usually, and that fact is what made their comments so very hurtful.

    There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at him and see the early days with the wires, tubes, lights, monitors, etc. NICU is an experience that stays with you for life, but one for which you can learn to be grateful. After our time in NICU, I learned to appreciate every moment with my child(ren), and he made us both into battle-hardened warriors. We don’t have to wonder if we have the strength to get through something, we know we do, and I think that’s true of all NICU parents/families.

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    July 6, 2015 at 10:28 pm (1 year ago)

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  17. Meg
    August 4, 2015 at 11:27 am (1 year ago)

    Thanks for this! My son was eight weeks early, and I think the most hurtful thing someone has said to me was, “Well, at least you avoided most of the third trimester!” As if I wouldn’t have traded my own physical discomfort for the health and safety of my tiny baby. I recognize that they were just trying to look on the bright side, as most of us are trained to do, but it is so hard to hear things like that.

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  19. New Mom
    August 9, 2016 at 5:01 pm (3 months ago)

    My daughter was born at 28 weeks and did well enough to get out of the NICU almost a month before her due date, but people got on my damn nerves with the “Wow, she is so small” comments. I wanted to say “Of course she is small, she basically spent her last 3 months that were supposed to be in the womb in an incubator with tubes coming out of her fighting for her life you asshat.” I kept it cool though and just said “Yes, she was born almost three months early so she is very small.” Some seemed content with that answer, some just had to persist. My MIL kept wanting to take pictures of her in the NiCu and I told her no because I didn’t people to see her with tubes coming out of her fighting for her life. People just need to have some respect. I even got “Wow. Other than being really small she doesn’t really LOOK like a preemie. She’s so proportional. Most preemies LOOK like preemies ya know?” WTF?! Was that supposed to make me feel better? I usually just sarcastically said “Well thank God my premature child meets your physical requirements, because where would she be without all this approval amirite?” and pushed on. Some people are better about biting their tongues than I am but when you are as emotionally and phyisically drained as the parents of a preemie are, you tend to be on a short fuse. At least I was anyway and I was not there for ANY of people’s foolishness and idiocy.


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