The outside world

Posted on March 30, 2016

The Outside World Hero

It's almost inevitable that someone, at some point, will make an insensitive comment about your baby. Here we look at why they do it and how you might react

Looking back on Little Bliss

Little Bliss magazine will celebrate its tenth anniversary in April. To mark a decade of our magazine for parents, we’ll be looking back at some of the most inspiring family stories and popular topics from our previous issues.

Issue 29, Spring 2013: The outside world 

It’s almost inevitable that someone, at some point, will make a thoughtless or insensitive comment to you about your baby. In this article we look at why they do it and how you might choose to react.

When new mums take their baby home for the first time everyone wants to get a peek at the new addition to the family. That first special outing with the pram usually provokes attention from passers-by, who politely ask how old your son or daughter is before going to comment on how beautiful he or she appears.

But when your baby is born needing special care that experience can be very different.

Family members can be unsure of how to react to the news: do they send their congratulations, or is it not appropriate to celebrate knowing that your baby faces days, weeks or sometimes months in hospital? After leaving the unit and taking your baby into the outside world, passers-by may not know how to react to the site of a baby on oxygen or one who, by comparison to others they’ve seen, is very small.

In both of these scenarios it can cause some people to panic and make thoughtless and insensitive comments. These comments, although rarely intentional hurtful, can nonetheless leave parents feeling more isolated than ever.

When Mandy Argent first took her baby daughter Alice out to the shops she was enjoying feeling like a ‘normal mum doing normal things’. Alice - who was born at 28 weeks - was still on oxygen but doing well and “she looked beautiful,” says Mandy. “I was so proud that we had got out in the sunshine. Then a woman with a toddler stopped to peep in the pram and when she saw Alice and the tubes all she said was 'oh dear' before grabbing her daughter's hand and pulling her away. I was gutted, and so offended and angry for Alice. I felt really tearful for the rest of the morning, steeled for what people might say or do next, ashamed of myself for pulling the pram hood up so people couldn't see her.

Sid Hurry's third son, Leo, arrived when she was 29 weeks pregnant and on holiday with her husband, Jon, and their two sons Jake and Dominic. Leo was in hospital for the first three months of his life - first in Portugal where he had to have brain surgery, and then in the UK.

"I remember when he eventually came home and went out I had everything from 'oh - he looks so normal' to 'you must be pleased to be home and glad it's all over'. I can see now that most people just didn't know what to expect, or what to say," says Sid. "I remember feeling so hurt when people said 'he looks normal', like what did they expect? We didn't know then how many health problems he'd have and were worried sick, so it seemed so insensitive. But then when people said 'oh good, he's fine then' - we were home from hospital, we were on the school run, he was six and a half pounds so I guess it looked like everything must be fine - it was like they were dismissing everything we had been through. The fact was I was carrying around crates of medication - he was on 19 doses a day – not knowing what was going to happen to Leo next didn't seem to occur to them. I felt so isolated, like no one understood what having a premature baby was like, and what I was going through."

There are certain moments in life when it seems we are all primed to say and do certain things. The arrival of a new baby is one of those moments. Whether we're a relative or friend or complete stranger in the aisle at the supermarket it is our job to tell the parents they have done a great job, comment on how beautiful the baby is, joke about years of sleepless nights.

If your baby arrived weeks or months early, or was born at term needing special care due to an illness, all that goes out of the window. Nothing is as rehearsed, and people rarely know what is expected or helpful. Which is why they can seem to say the most unexpected, unhelpful things that can, understandably, leave you reeling.

There is research which shows that a lot of our conversations - especially when we're under stress or taken by surprise - are made up with saying the inappropriate. We combine that with the effort of repairing those things and helping people feel more comfortable. If the inappropriate words we say are about a person's age or job or dress sense - or something that can be untangled pretty swiftly and laughed about later, it’s ok. But in certain situations, perhaps when someone has died, or is sick, or - in this case – has had to watch their baby struggle to survive - it's difficult to make that kind of recovery. Chances are, one person backs off wondering why they said what they did - hating themselves for being so clumsy - while the other goes home feeling wretched about the comment that was made.

"My first outing with Ben was when he was about five months old," says Julia Sibley. "He was only 5lb then - he'd just come out of hospital having been born at 26 weeks. I had him in a papoose and I was in a café in town when a lady started talking to me, thinking he was a newborn. When I told her he'd been born prematurely she was obviously taken aback. After a horrible pause she said 'you are so lucky, not having had to suffer that pregnancy indigestion you get at nine months'.

"I had been under such enormous stress I think I blurted out something like 'I think I'd rather have had indigestion that watch my son nearly lose his life.' And we both backed out in opposite directions.

“Ben's just turned 20 and is graduating from college and while I remember that moment so clearly, I can also see that the woman would be mortified if she'd known how hurt I was."

"The thing to remember when people say the wrong thing is that they are reacting, not giving a thoughtful response," says Dr Sandra Wheatley, psychologist and author of Nine Women Nine Lives, a book about the experience of pregnancy and birth.

"People peer into prams expecting to see a jolly, chubby faced baby and to ask how old, to comment how beautiful. They have a script in their head. We all do. When they're taken aback by what they see and what they hear they will feel shock and empathy and sympathy and probably desperately want to show that, but they usually don't. They don't have time to think - that rehearsed script is disrupted - so are most likely to say something that pops into their head which they are probably aware, a second later, has only made the situation worse.

“When people put their foot in it, or say something that distresses others, they should say sorry and stay and sort it out,” says Wheatley. “But we can all be guilty of missing that opportunity and, feeling awkward, retreating fast.”

With everything else going on in your life, having to give people slack for saying the wrong thing and causing you distress may seem like an ask too much. But understanding why they've reacted as they do can - Wheatley hopes - open the door for reshaping this kind of exchange.

"If you have had a baby early you need support more than most, and the danger is you miss out on that because conversations - conversations that could be really beneficial and enjoyable - don't happen." says Wheatley. "If you can put on your Teflon suit and survive their mistake, knowing that it was a mistake and not meant to hurt - it will allow you to get to the second base rather than letting their first mistake spoil your whole day. Be prepared for their surprise. Tell them it's been pretty awful but you are so glad to be out with your baby. Tell them how thrilled you are they're putting on weight, and the difference you are seeing every day. Chances are they'll tell you how amazing you are, and how amazing your baby is and the conversation will be really useful and make you feel good rather than bad. It might open the door to new friendships with neighbours or other new mums. With people who really want to understand."

Three top tips from mums who've been there

1. Be prepared for people's reactions to your new baby. Remember they have no understanding of prematurity, and won't know whether to sympathise or celebrate. Have a line you can pull out of your pocket to give them a cue. "We're so pleased to be home and celebrating..."..."She looks poorly but she's doing well..." "We're still worried sick, but glad to be home from hospital." Be as honest as you can so you get a more useful response in return.

2. For your first few outings take a family member or friend for support. Prime them on point one above or they might be ready to battle on your behalf if strangers fire inappropriate comments at you and your baby.

3. Get in touch with Bliss to see if you can make contact with a volunteer who’s been in a similar situation who lives near you. Meeting them for a regular coffee or a walk and enjoying each other’s support can transform these early weeks and lead to lasting friendships, for you and your baby.