HAVING A BABY is always an emotional experience, but when your child arrives sooner than expected, the joy of finally meeting him is coupled with worries over his health and future. Whether you were prepared for the possibility that your child might be born before your due date or you gave birth prematurely without warning, the feelings of uncertainty are probably the same. And it’s far from an uncommon experience: About one in ten babies in the United States arrives prior to the 37th week of pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To quell your concerns, keep these considerations in mind.

Prepare to pump.

You’ll likely be asked to pump as soon as possible after birth. Long before a newborn is able to drink by himself, a nurse can rub a few drops of colostrum on his tongue and gums to get breast milk’s immune-boosting benefits started. When he’s finally ready to take a bottle, his stomach will still be so small that he’ll only need a little. “One ounce of breast milk can last for two days at the beginning,” says Christine H. Sajous, M.D., neonatologist at Loyola University Medical Center, in Maywood, Illinois. Once you begin breastfeeding, keep in mind that a premature baby will feed much more slowly than a full-term infant, so be patient and allow adequate time for each new nursing session.

You may be wondering why there’s such emphasis on nursing. “It’s incredibly beneficial for a premature newborn’s immune system, especially the initial colostrum,” says Dr. Sajous. Studies show that premature babies who are fed breast milk have fewer readmissions to the hospital following their discharge from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and show greater gains in cognitive development than formula-fed preemies do.

Protect your passenger.

Before your baby is discharged, check the labels on the side of your car seat to make sure the minimum weight is appropriate for your preemie; not all seats can be used for babies under 5 pounds. At one time NICUs wouldn’t let a baby leave until she reached the 5-pound mark, but now many babies achieve stable health before reaching 5 pounds. “Your baby should also be evaluated when properly positioned in a car seat to ensure that she stays medically stable when she’s upright,” says Marilyn Bull, M.D., co-medical director of the Automotive Safety Program at Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis.

Clear the air.

Several studies have shown that exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to numerous health problems, including decreased lung growth and function and an increased risk of respiratory infections—especially in preemies. Avoid letting smokers visit your house, even if they don’t light up when they’re there, and keep your baby away from areas friendly to cigarette smoke.

Remember tummy time.

Since a preemie spends most of his time on his back in the NICU, he needs several belly sessions a day at home. This will help him strengthen his neck, abs, back, and shoulder muscles so that he can learn to push up and eventually crawl, and it will reduce the odds that he’ll develop flat-head syndrome. “Putting your baby on your chest, skin to skin, while he’s awake is great for tummy time as well as bonding,” says Dr. Sajous.

Keep things calm.

Bright lights and loud noises are more likely to upset preemies, who have been agitated by constant commotion in the NICU, explains Dr. Sajous. Make sure he gets quiet time. However, try not to let yourself be overly anxious.

Adjust your expectations.

Don’t worry if your child doesn’t sit up at the same time as your friends’ babies do: They had a head start. When figuring out when your preemie might hit her milestones, use her adjusted age—how old she would have been if born full-term— until she turns 2. “If your child arrived two months early, she’d still be considered a newborn at 8 weeks,” says Dr. Sajous. Your child’s adjusted age is also important when making feeding decisions, such as when to start solids or finger foods.

Parenting a premature baby can be more demanding than caring for a full-term infant, but even though she may need more frequent weight checks and feedings, don’t get so caught up in the challenges that you forget to have fun with her. You can still talk to her and snuggle just as you would with any other baby.