When women are pregnant, they expect to carry their baby to full term. However, nearly 1 in 9 U.S. births are premature. Having a premature baby is a unique experience that can be scary, challenging and emotional--especially if you don’t know what to expect.
Because most preemies are not fully developed, they require constant monitoring with numerous machines. Collecting information about the technology that is helping your preemie survive, as well as learning about what most preemies face in their first days, will help to reduce uncertainty and initial shock from a premature birth. Take advantage of the internet and read books. Talk to medical staff and other preemie parents to educate yourself. Be sure you understand every aspect of your baby’s care.
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a unique place and can be quite overwhelming. If possible, tour the NICU before your preemie is born, so you can understand the role of the equipment in the room and meet the nurses who will be crucial in your baby’s first weeks of life. If other parents of preemies are in the room, talk to them to help prepare you for what will likely be your baby’s home--until she or he is able to go home with you.
Babies who are born earlier than 30 weeks gestation will be connected to many pieces of medical technology to monitor their vital signs and help them breathe and function. This can be scary to family members who want to help but don’t understand. Use a blog or a hospital care site to send photos and explain the progress of your baby. This will allow family members to be a part of you and your new baby’s life.
The birth of a premature baby typically comes with fear and uncertainty about the baby’s health, feelings of loss of the full-term birth experience and sometimes, the mother’s health. While these are natural feelings, you should still try to celebrate the birth of your child and marvel at the opportunity to see him/her develop and change every day.
With numerous machines, monitors and nurses in the NICU, it may feel as if you should stay out of the way. However, be sure to ask questions and stay very involved in your baby’s feeding, bathing and holding. Kangaroo care, which is a method of holding a naked, premature baby on an adult’s bare chest has been proven to help premature babies thrive, as well as help parents bond with their child.
Because most of your time will be spent in the NICU with your newborn--and the number of visitors is limited to protect preemies from life-threatening illnesses--it is easy to become isolated from your social support system. But keep in mind that the NICU provides the best childcare available, so be sure to take time for yourself and spend time with family before your preemie comes home.
While in the NICU, your baby may be on a warming table and in an isolette. This makes it harder to touch and hold your baby, which makes the emotional attachment even more difficult. Kangaroo hold your baby on your bare chest as soon as the nurses allow to promote an attachment and hold your baby’s hand through the isolette. Your baby was early, so relish these first days to attach.
Live in the present and cherish each milestone in your child’s development. Remember that you have the opportunity to watch your baby develop as if he or she were in the womb. Don’t dwell on what your child would have been like if he or she was full term. Instead, understand that this is your reality and embrace it.
When a new baby is born, parents are typically showered with cards, congratulations, and visits from family and friends. However, due to the uncertainty of the health of a premature baby, it is natural to feel as if you have lost out on the typical new baby celebrations. Allow yourself the chance to grieve the loss of this experience, and find ways to announce and celebrate the birth of your preemie.
Since preemie parents miss the full-term birth experience, it is easy to get angry and frustrated with full-term parents who compare the developmental milestones of children--which preemies rarely meet. Don’t forget that your child had a challenging birth experience and survived. Relish this and remember that developmental stages will be met later than full-term babies--and this is okay.
Most parents expect to have a healthy, full-term birth, so having a premature baby sets off a rollercoaster of emotions. Having a premature baby is a challenging experience that will expose you to a unique NICU world, which only 1 in 9 births experience. Enjoy the milestones in the NICU and after. And remember that your child--and you--survived the preemie experience.
More expert advice about Being a Better Parent
Photo Credits: The doctor checks Meredith.. by SullivanGardner via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com