Ask the Experts: Facing Fear as a Family

Q: My sister just had a premature baby. Her little boy has to wear a mask on his face to breathe, and he hasn’t been able to leave the hospital yet. My sister is upset, of course, and so are my parents. Meanwhile, I’m still here at school and feeling like the most useless person in the world. I want to help my sister and my family in any way I can, but I don’t know what I could do that would make a difference to anyone right now. They’re out of state, so I can’t visit easily. I don’t even know much about the kid’s condition other than that everyone is scared, and I don’t want to ask my sister right now. I’m worried and I feel awful, and I just don’t know what to do. Is there anything I could do to help?


A: Your family’s situation sounds very tough indeed. Premature birth is always serious. It sounds like what your nephew is wearing is a CPAP machine, which uses mild air pressure to air and regulate breathing, your family and your sister and nephews would be the ones who know for sure. Your choice to avoid asking your sister seems wise–she is dealing with the health of her child constantly (as well as her own health–OB-GYNs suggest postpartum checkups), and when she can afford to get away from doctors and hospitals, she may not want to spend that time talking more about the same frightening issues. But since the worry is clearly weighing about you, you may want to speak to your parents and learn more about the situation. Remember, too, that you are not alone in this: 1 in 10 infants in the United States is born preterm.


While it’s not necessarily a good idea to ask your sister about the medical details, it is absolutely a good idea to reach out to her and remind her that you are thinking of her and her family. As for what you should say when you call, experts have plenty of advice to share: those who have been through what your sister is going through often recommend saying “congratulations,” a word that far too few parents in this situation get to hear. Your sister is a new parent, and while she’s not going to be in any mood to celebrate, a subdued “congratulations” recognizes the momentous moments and the good parts of this intense experience.


Recommendations from experts also frequently include helping with cooking and household chores, two things that easily fall by the wayside in the frantic and frightening days following a preterm birth. But you mentioned that you’re far from your family right now, so what can you do? One option is to send gift cards or order take-out for your sister and family (call ahead so they’re not surprised by the delivery person, and don’t forget to pay the whole bill, including the tip, ahead of time). You may even be able to call in and cover things like your sister’s hospital parking fees. Gestures like this can mean a lot.


This is a difficult time for your sister, your family, and yourself, but remember that the overwhelming majority of infants born preterm survive and thrive. Support your sister and stay in contact with your parents, and your family will come through this stronger than ever.


“I sustain myself with the love of family.” – Maya Angelou


Written by Suzanne Hite, former publications editor serving the technology services sector.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the opinions of King’s College or WRKC.