November is Prematurity Awareness Month. I am the lucky mom of two children who were born at 29 weeks and 4 days gestation, nearly three months premature.
Seeing your children hooked up to machines to breathe, eat, and generally stay alive is horrible. Their little bodies are not ready to be “on the outside” and they have to endure so much. My son Jeremiah could not breathe without intervention and needed a C-PAP machine and, later, an oxygen cannula. My daughter Avani received a life-saving treatment called surfactant the day she was born and was intubated. They were subject to tests and treatments that ranged from uncomfortable (heart ultrasounds, EKGs, and gastrointestinal x-ray studies) to excruciatingly painful (retina exams). I know it is cliché, but I would never wish a premature birth on my worst enemy and I would give anything to turn back time and gestate my twins until 38, or even 34, weeks!
I could write an entire book on the fear, pain, guilt, and disappointment associated with my children’s premature arrivals. But now that my children are healthy 19-month-olds, I have a refined perspective on our time in the NICU and I would like to share some of these surprising “silver-linings.”
(Despite the positive nature of this post, premature birth is a very serious problem. Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age, responsible for nearly 1 million deaths in 2013. Please educate yourself on the warning signs of preterm labor and never hesitate to contact your health care providers with questions or concerns.)
Top 5 Silver Linings of Our Premature Birth Experience…
- Easing into parenthood with the support of a medical team! When my children arrived 12 weeks early, I was not mentally or logistically prepared to be their primary caretaker. In the NICU I learned how to burp and bathe a baby from the very best source: nurses! Instead of completing our scheduled four hour class on “baby care” at my local hospital, we had a two month, hands on session! When I finally felt ready to feed, clean, and dress my children without breaking them, it was almost time to bring them home!
- Support with breastfeeding! Both of my children received intravenous nourishment when they were born, and later received my breastmilk through a feeding tube. It took weeks until we could challenge them to nurse because they could not suck, swallow, and breathe at the same time. When it was finally time to try nursing, I had the support of a team of lactation consultants, use of two hospital grade breast pumps, and access to donated breastmilk. When my babies were too tired to consume a whole feeding at the breast, they received the rest of their milk from a feeding tube, which helped us stay the course of working on their human nipple latch.
- Instant preemie family! Making new “mom friends” is hard, but I have an instant connection with other moms of preemies. One of my best mom friends “lived” across the hall from us in the NICU with her boy/girl twins and she continues to be one of my biggest allies and a reliable sounding board because we totally “get” each other: from the NICU experience to raising boy/girl twins, to our shared parenting goals! Another one of my closest mom friends and I had an eerily similar labor, delivery, and NICU experience, and we continue to communicate almost daily about preemie-adjusted milestones and related health care decisions and services. Plus, my family gained an entire support system of nurses, doctors, nurse practioners, and physical-, occupational-, and speech-therapists who care for our children and continue to be our biggest cheerleaders.
- My kids are superheroes! Everyone rightfully thinks their kids are impressive, but premature babies have to prove it! In the first months of their lives my children demonstrated strength, perseverance, and bravery. They learned how to breathe, persevered through challenges learning to eat, and underwent countless painful exams, studies and tests. I can’t wait until Jeremiah and Avani are old enough to understand the resilience they showed in their first months of life.
- Celebrating every milestone! When your kids were born prematurely, you don’t just celebrate every pound they gain, you celebrate every teeny tiny ounce! While my kids were in the NICU, we weighed every single diaper and celebrated every minute, then hour, then day without any breathing or heart “spells.” Beginning life with two premature babies taught me to cherish every moment and celebrate every milestone, no matter how basic and mundane!
Have you had an experience with premature birth or time in the NICU? How has it shaped your experience as a parent?