The guilt of prematurity

Guilt of premature birth

As Mothers guilt is an emotion that’s hard coded into who we are, we can feel guilty for absolutely everything from snapping at our children to not saying yes when they ask you to read the same book for the fifteenth time that day! Guilt in small doses can be a good thing, it pushes us to do our best and forces us to ask questions of ourselves, but then there’s the pointless guilt that stems from no solid foundation, the guilt that can eat away at us and make us blame ourselves for things that are out of our control. That’s the guilt a mother of a premature baby carriers with her everyday.

202The things you blame yourself for on the road through NICU do not begin and end with the fact your baby was born early, there are endless things that as their mummy you take responsibility for and this guilt and blame can build and eat away at you every time you have to walk out of the hospital and leave your baby behind.

Once your baby is home and you are fighting a battle in your own mind to come to terms with what has happened, to process all of the emotions you have faced and hidden from including the guilt, it’s my belief that the biggest challenge is accepting that non of it was your fault.

I wanted to share some of the things I blamed myself for so that hopefully other mums going through the preemie journey can realise that you’re not alone in blaming yourself, that every preemie mum faces the same feelings and that accepting they were things that were out of your control can help you move on.


1. I’m sorry you had to be born early and I couldn’t keep you safe

Guilt about the fact your baby was born early is undoubtedly the first thing you feel guilty for. No matter what the reason behind the early birth as a mother you will feel there surely was something you could have done but there really wasn’t it was not your fault it was no one’s fault.

Hand in hand with the guilt your baby was born early is the feeling you failed for not keeping them safe. There is no escaping this feeling because it is our maternal instinct from the moment we conceive to keep our child safe and protected. Accepting it was entirely out of your hands is the only way to quieten the voice that you did something wrong.

2. I’m sorry I couldn’t give birth to you

Obviously not all premature births are via c-section but many are and for me this was a devastating part of what happened. Having given birth naturally to our toddler I knew everything I was missing by having to have an emergency c-section and having this option ‘stolen’ from me ate away at me.

I missed out on the feeling of overwhelming accomplishment when your baby arrives, the first moments of skin to skin contact when your emotions are firing around your body at a million miles an hour, feeling your baby’s tiny breath on your skin and nursing your newborn miracle. I felt guilty that I had been able to give my toddler these precious moments of bonding and not my twins and more than that I felt I actually mourned the loss of these moments and so many more over the coming weeks.

3. I’m sorry I was able to leave you

It’s inevitable that when your child is in NICU you will at some point have to leave them and it goes without saying that this is the hardest part, there is nothing at all natural about being separated from your newborn baby and the empty void it leaves inside you is incomprehensible.

What took me by surprise is that my ability to put one foot in front of the other and walk out of the hospital day after day made me feel like a failure as a mother. I felt that surely as their mummy I should cry uncontrollably every time, I should have to be dragged kicking and screaming from the ward but this didn’t happen, I sang to them, kissed them goodbye and walked out day after day and for that I carry guilt even now.

When you are in such an unbearable situation I have now realised it is completely normal for your brain to put up a wall, to turn down your emotions making you numb to the world and the hell you are living through. This is how you are able to bare what is happening, it’s how you will cope and for me and my husband it worked but in the aftermath when your emotions get turned back up you may feel ashamed that you coped. As with everything that happens it’s not your fault that you reacted the way you did and without that coping mechanism you would have been no use to your baby, accepting this is hard but it’s true.

4. I’m sorry I wasn’t there more

For parents who have other children being beside your baby’s incubator for long periods of time often just isn’t practical as unfortunately life carries on and as mum it’s your job to keep it running smoothly. Of course this therefore equals more guilt! I felt unbelievably guilty that I was only able to spend 2-5 hours a day with my babies and that during that time I would be lucky to hold them both for half an hour when juggling expressing, cares and tube feeds.

You are constantly spinning several plates to keep your home life stable, your other children happy and cared for, your new baby loved and bonded with and yourself sane so please don’t add guilt on top of this because whatever time you get to spend with your baby is precious and you are doing your best!

For parents without other children you shouldn’t feel guilty for not sitting there 24/7 either as although you long to be with your baby the NICU can be a soul destroying place. You often don’t get to hold your baby and it’s OK to feel bored or in need of a break, it’s normal and you are not the only one feeling that way so please don’t beat yourself up or feel like you aren’t showing your baby enough love.

5. I’m sorry I let other people care for you

To some people this may sound ridiculous as of course it’s not your fault someone else is looking after your baby, they need specialist care and you can’t do that but still I managed to feel guilty about this too.

I hated that other people changed, fed and cared for my babies. I hated thinking that my boys found comfort in another woman’s voice or touch or smell, I hated the thought that they thought of that place as their home and I questioned whether they thought of me as their mummy or just another nurse. This all sounds insane now but when you are in that situation it’s normal to feel jealous and protective, these first few weeks would usually be precious bonding time and the feeling you are missing out on this is awful. I felt guilty that I had ‘let’ this happen as if this was ever a situation within my control.

6. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you

Watching your child feel pain is horrendous and standing seeing a cannula being moved or your baby being intubated causes every fibre in your being to want to scream ‘STOP get your hands off my baby’, it doesn’t matter it’s all to help them it hurts you in a way you never knew possible and it is a memory you will carry for the rest of your life. Feeling you should have protected them is beyond a normal feeling it is an intrinsic part of being a parent and although I think you have to accept this wasn’t your fault it’s futile to say don’t feel guilty because it’s part of who we are as humans and mothers.

7. I’m sorry I couldn’t feel more

The numb feeling that got me through NICU and my son’s subsequent admission to intensive care for bronchiolitis made me feel robbed of five weeks with my babies. I was so numb I was like a walking zombie just existing and getting through but not feeling. I loved my babies without question but I didn’t feel that overwhelming love and joy that usually builds over the first few days, until they had been home for about three weeks. When it came it hit me like a sledge hammer quickly followed by the guilt that I hadn’t felt like that all along, I felt like a heartless bitch and ashamed I had not felt what I feel now from the very beginning. Accepting this was not my fault has taken a long time and I still grieve for those lost weeks and I hate my minds ability to cope and the way this robbed me of feelings for so long.


These are just some of the things I blamed myself for and I am sure if I sat here any longer I could think of many more. Accepting you aren’t to blame and you coped and did the best you could is a long process and one you can’t really ‘do’ it just happens bit by bit as you adjust to life at home. Slowly your mind gets back to normal and you see things more rationally again and realise nothing was your fault and you are in fact a bloody awesome mother and human being for getting yourself and your family through a completely crap time. For me I found writing my sons a letter explaining everything I felt guilty for was a real catalyst to moving on as I could then simply put it away in a draw and start to forget about it. Whatever way you find to process the guilt please just keep telling yourself you are not to blame.


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12 thoughts on “The guilt of prematurity

  1. Tears. I recognise all of this guilt, thanks for putting it in writing and making it seem normal and ok. Big love to you and your little ones xxx

  2. Wow. You put into words the first 16 weeks if my little boys life. He’s 16 weeks and 3 days today and reading this has made me realise I’m not alone. Thank you x

  3. I was born 10 weeks early in the 1980s, I never blamed my mother. It’s not anyone’s fault, and if I hadn’t been delivered early by emergency Cesarean we both would not have survived. Mothers are not given enough credit for all that they do in terms of pregnancy, birth and motherhood. No one sets out to have a premature baby, any mother that delivers early has still done a fantastic job to grow their baby, and they don’t love it any less, and are not loved any less by their babies. I especially think of the mothers who have other young children at home to look after as well as a sick baby in hospital. None of that can be easy. Well done to all mam’s who go through this and come out the other end. I’m not sure what the layout is in hospitals but I’ve often thought that hospitals should be redesigned so that the mothers of premature babies can ‘room in’ for the duration of their child’s stay or at least have that option. It would remove a lot of the stress for the mother and the baby. When I was born I was kept in the NICU in the maternity hospital for 2 months, and mam was sent to another hospital for a similar duration, not ideal to be separated, but that’s how it was. Again, well done to all of you lovely mothers who have experienced and gotten through events like this.

  4. I could have been reading my story. I have twin girls and I often wondered if those babies thought the nurses was their mummy and not me. I spent as much time at the hospital as I could then I got mastitis and I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed. Even now I feel awful about those few days when I physically couldn’t get to the hospital to visit my babies. Thank you for writing this piece. It should be give to all preemie mummies xxx

  5. I totally relate to what you’re saying. I had two prems (34 and 29 weeks) so feel these things everytime i think back. It still affects me today 4 years later.

  6. This is spot on. I’ve had 2 premature babies, my daughter is still in neonatal, and these are the thoughts that I’ve had for over 8 years now. I want to thank you for putting this into words for all of us mummies and daddies that are feeling this way x

  7. I hear what you say about the guilt that comes when your babies are in pain. And I learned that it doesn’t always have to be this way. I started a petition so that premature babies can always be given pain relief. It need not be medication: there are other methods, like swaddling, pacifiers, and skin-to-skin contact. Pain medication is often needed for surgeries, but it is not always given to infants. Adults are given pain relief after surgery; why not children? Please sign this petition to provide preemies with comfort:

  8. Thank you for articulating exactly how I feel today. My 31+1 week twins have been in the NICU for 5 days and I’m struggling with so much guilt about their premature birth. I keep thinking if I could have fought harder to keep them on longer.

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