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It’s not as simple as you’d think; it’s mostly about timing.

When I was convalescing after my daughter’s birth, a good friend of mine gave me a baby book to help me pass the time until I was discharged. In theory, a great idea, and I was looking forward to filling it out…but then I cracked the book open and read “Mommy’s labor pains started on _____” (THEY DIDN’T!) and “When Mommy held me for the first time, she _____” (SHE HASN’T!) and “Headlines from that day were _____” (HORRIBLE NATIONAL TRAGEDY!)

My friend meant well, which is why to this day I haven’t told her, the baby book was not the best gift to receive while my daughter and I were still in the hospital.

Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you’re in the market for a thoughtful gift for the parents of a preterm infant. (Don’t get a baby book.) You want to make a gesture as a show of support for the parents, especially during those first few weeks. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked what I needed, what we needed, if there’s anything we can do to help. Now that we’re on the other side of that experience, I’ve put together a list of my top five gifts for gifting the preterm parents:

5. Shop the registry. Depending on how early the infant was delivered, there may or may not have been a baby shower. Shop the registry. And one of the best items to snatch up right away is a mobile. Once the infant can regulate her own body temperature, she will be moved to an open bassinet. Although she cannot yet “see” the objects on the mobile, she can perceive the movement and hear the musical chimes. Plus, a mobile adds a welcome touch of whimsy to the nursery, a comforting link between home and hospital.

4. Baby clothes. Preemie outfits are a must. But before you rush out to the store, keep in mind that as small as the clothes may be, they are sometimes twice as big as the newborn, so wait a week or so for the emotional shock to wear off before you give p-sized clothing to the parents. Furthermore, bypass zippers whenever possible, because threading leads, tubes, and wires is an added challenge in dressing preemies. The NICU nurses in our unit preferred front-open diaper shirts and anything with snaps. And finally, for every p-sized outfit you buy, also pick up a size nb, if not for right then, but for homecoming. It’s amazing how fast these little ones grow once they start upping their calorie intake.

3. Children’s books. Why? Because researchers are finding that blanketing preterm infants in language improves their cognitive development further down the road. Not to mention the fact that reading silly rhymes out loud helps adults relax and enjoy their time with the baby. Because having one-sided conversations can feel a bit awkward, having children’s books on hand can be an incredible resource. Fast forward a few months, and parents will have no problem narrating every moment of their day out loud. Like, in public. (“This is a squash. The squash is yellow. It tastes delicious. Yum.”)

2. Calender. Unlike a baby book, which can be incredibly presumptuous, a baby calendar is a great way to celebrate milestones because it allows parents to take one day at a time. This is definitely a must for those parents whose preterm infant has a preterm twin (or a preterm triplet). These calendars don’t seem widely available, but I found one at a Hallmark store. And on Amazon.

1. Time. Hands down the best gift you can give the parents of a preterm infant. Yeah, it sounds like kind of an obvious suggestion, but a few hours of your time can make a huge impact. Is the nursery finished (or even started)? Volunteer to paint, assemble furniture, register products, etc. Are there siblings in the family? Volunteer to babysit. Pets? Volunteer to feed and walk them. Are you an artsy-craftsy person? Use your imagination. Do the new parents eat food? It may sound old-fashioned, but gift them with a hassle free dinner.

So that is my top five favorite gifts, but I’d like to hear from you. Are there any other mothers and fathers out there with helpful suggestions? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Hey Big Spender, want to make a grand plaque-on-the-wall kind of gesture? Definitely talk to a hospital administrator who is in charge of donations. Specific things you might mention include:

  • Peek-a-boo cameras. These webcams allow parents and family members to remotely watch their infants in real-time on a closed network.
  • Kid friendly waiting areas. Because of the risks associated with RSV and other infectious diseases, siblings are often restricted from the NICU during cold and flu season.
  • Overnight accommodations for out-of-town parents. Not ever preterm infant is born in a town with a Level III NICU, (or even in their parents’ hometown) so parents will sometimes have to make travel arrangements which can get very expensive.
  • Regional impact. Because not all states are equal when it comes to accessible prenatal care and lowering the preterm infant birth rate.