Probably nothing sums up the experience of having a prematurely born baby better than the statement of a preemie father from Health4Mom. He admitted, "When we took our little 4-pound baby girl home, [she had been in the hospital 14 weeks] we were thinking, 'Well, now she'll just be like a normal baby girl.' We had no idea what the next year would be like."
Truly, taking care of a premature baby is very different from raising a full-term infant. They need even more love and attention. They are prone to having certain medical issues. And they usually don't develop as quickly as their peers. However, it doesn't mean that something will always be wrong with a preemie. As soon as they catch up with their full-term age-mates, they will be fine. As soon as they recover and get all the strength they need, they will become healthy and strong kids. And no one will even be able to guess that they were born earlier than expected.
But until then, parents need to apply additional efforts to raising their preemie. They need to deal with all the stress caused by this situation; they have to take CPR classes and learn how to use certain kinds of medical equipment. And for some time, they will have to almost live in the NICU with their baby, until they're ready to go home.
So let's see what preemie parents need to keep in mind to ensure that their little one grows into a healthy kid.
Remember how The Beatles sang, "All you need is love?" When it comes to premature babies, they obviously require medical attention, but sometimes the love of their mom is literally all they need to survive.
Let me tell you a story about Kate Ogg, a woman who gave birth to her twins at 26 weeks in 2010. Her baby girl was born fine, but her baby boy didn't breathe. Doctors struggled for his life for 20 minutes, but couldn't do anything and put the baby on his mother's chest, so she could say goodbye. Kate began cuddling and stroking him, telling how much she loved him and then a miracle happened. The baby started moving and breathing.
These days, the boy saved by the miracle of his mom's love is a healthy and strong child, who loves to play with his twin sister. It proves how much love actually means.
After a preemie is born, they will have to stay in a hospital for some time. Usually, they're discharged at the time they had to be born, but the duration of this period is different for everyone. Not only the baby has to be ready for it, but doctors also need to check parents and make sure that they're prepared to take care of their baby on their own. Among other things, parents absolutely need to know what to do in case of emergency (we'll talk about it later).
To be discharged from the hospital, the baby needs to gain the ability to eat and breathe on their own, maintain a stable temperature, and pass a few safety tests.
Parents of preemies absolutely need to be ready for emergencies. For this reason, they have to undergo specialized training to know what to do if anything goes wrong, how to use whatever medical equipment their infant still needs and be able to perform CPR.
Not only moms, but both parents need to take this course, as well as grandparents of the preemie and anyone who is likely to stay alone with the baby during the first month. Some hospitals are ready to provide training for their patients. If you don't know where to receive it, contact the Heart Association and the Red Cross to get all the information you need.
Even when the baby comes home, they still might need certain medical equipment to ensure complete recovery. Among other issues, premature babies tend to have episodes of apnea (pauses in breathing). As they mature, this issue goes away, but at the initial stages, parents need to be ready that it might happen.
If a discharged infant has slight apnea that doesn't cause serious issues and doesn't require stimulation to help start breathing again, they will be sent home with an apnea monitor. In this case, parents, as well as other people who are about to take care of the baby, will need to attend a training session to know how to use this monitor.
Another breathing issue common for preemies is bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). In case a baby has it, they will need supplemental oxygen or a mechanical ventilator to breathe normally at the time of NICU discharge. Besides, they might also require certain medications that will help their lungs work better and contribute to stabilizing their condition.
Parents will obviously have to know everything about using an oxygen mask and a mechanical ventilator. All the equipment that they will require to help their baby recover faster will be provided at the hospital. Besides, doctors and nurses will also give them recommendations on how to safely transport the baby home.
All moms are wary about letting their baby interact with others due to possible infections, but moms of preemies need to be especially careful about it. The thing is, the immune system of a premature baby doesn't work as well as that of a full-term infant. It means that they're more likely to catch infections. Viral respiratory infections are especially dangerous for them because they can have dire consequences.
To prevent infections, parents need to keep the baby's environment as healthy as possible by asking those who have recently had flu or cold to stay away from the infant. Besides, make sure that everyone who interacts with them washes their hands and avoid crowded places for the time being.
Since winter is a flu season, parents need to be especially attentive during this period. Among other precautions, it's important to ensure that all family members and friends who are going to interact with the baby are up to date with their flu shots. Besides, before discharge parents need to check that their infant got an injection against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that will be effective throughout winter and spring.
During the flu season, it's advised to completely avoid public places. So prefer a walk in the fresh air somewhere near your house to a visit to an amusement park or (especially) a shopping mall.
When parents know that their preemie can go home, one of the first things they need to think about is getting a special car seat for them. According to Kids Health, it needs to be an infant-only seat with a three-point or five-point harness system. To ensure that the baby will breathe comfortably, it might be required to modify the seat with padding or head support.
Some hospitals will require parents to bring the car seat for a test in advance. In this case, the baby will be placed into the seat with a cardiopulmonary monitor attached to see how they breathe. But even if the baby's nice and comfy in the seat, it's better to limit their stay in there to not more than an hour.
Since premature babies aren't as strong as full-term infants, they will need more food to catch up to normal growth. For this reason, the "never wake a sleeping baby" rule can't be applied to preemies. They're likely to sleep through feedings, so parents need to be very attentive about giving them all the nutrition they need.
If a baby falls asleep during feedings, a mom can try burping them, singing a song, switching positions, or rubbing the baby's forehead with a cool towel.
But, at the same time, parents mustn't feed their preemie too much, because their intestines aren't mature yet. The best idea is sticking to the nutrition plan provided by the doctor.
The sleep pattern of premature babies is different from that of full-term infants. They're likely to get tired faster, so they will probably sleep more often, but their periods of sleep will be shorter. They'll also probably start sleeping through the night later than other babies, so parents will have to put more effort into taking care of them (and of themselves). However, since sleep and food are the most important things for a preemie's recovery at this stage, moms and dads need to be ready to deal with it.
Remember that, like all other infants, preemies need to sleep on their backs only, because it reduces the risk of SIDS.
Premature babies aren't called newborns until they reach their due date (meaning, the date when they had to be born according to the doctors' estimates). For this reason, parents of preemies should better ignore the milestones typical for full-term babies and consider the adjusted age of their baby. In other words, if a baby was born eight weeks early, they won't be a newborn until they're 2 months of age, etc.
During the first weeks after being born the preemie is probably even unable to eat by themselves. Besides, keep in mind that the preemie's development might also be hindered due to their immature neurological system. How can they reach all the results full-terms reach at, say, 6 months of age? So be ready to see these results a bit later and don't worry about it.
Usually, the earlier the baby was born, the more time they're likely to take to catch up with their full-term peers in terms of reaching developments milestones. For example, according to experts, so-called micro-preemies (born at 24-28 weeks gestation) might take up to 2 or 3 years to catch up. And if the baby was born at 30 weeks, they are likely to need 10 additional weeks to get to the normal newborn milestones.
A lot of factors can influence the speed of the preemie's development, including how healthy they were at birth and since that time, what medical challenges they faced (if any), and how they were taken care of at home.
While still in the womb, the baby hears the voices of their parents all the time and suddenly finding themselves in a different place without these comforting voices can contribute to increased stress. To avoid it, parents need to talk to their preemie as often as possible.
It's especially important to do it while the baby is still in the NICU. It will ensure them that their mommy and daddy are close and that they are loved. According to recent studies, it will help the baby recover quicker.
So even if you can't hold your baby at the moment, still make sure to talk to them. It's also a good idea to record yourself talking or singing and leave the recorder next to your baby, so they can hear your voice even when you're not there.
Parents need to know how to swaddle their infant anyway, but it's even more important for mommies and daddies with a preemie. You see, when the baby was in the womb, they felt nice and warm, but when they exited it (and did it so early) they realized how cold the outside world is. So it's extremely important for their development and growth (and for their deep sleep and mood, as well) to always keep them warm.
Nurses in the NICU can help moms learn how to swaddle and give them tips on how to carefully handle this tiny little human being (they're tinier than full-terms, after all).
Recent studies have confirmed how important skin-to-skin contact is for all babies, especially for preemies. Commonly known as kangaroo care, this skin-to-skin contact helps babies feel warmer, contributes to the production of stress relief hormones, creates a special bond with the mother and even enhances the future physical and mental development.
Most hospitals advise moms to practice kangaroo care even before their preemie is discharged from the hospital. The nursing staff will show them how to do it. Normally, moms can practice it in a warm room with their baby dressed in nothing but a diaper and placed onto her bare chest. The baby's head should be turned so that their ear is against the mom's heart.
Although it's the last thing preemie parents think about, one of the first things they have to do after their baby's born is talk to their insurance company. According to Kids Health, they need to ask to add their infant to their policy within a few days after they're born.
Having done it, parents might receive certain benefits from their company. Among other things, the insurance will provide them with home nursing visits and special care in case their infant has complex medical issues.
Besides, don't forget to arrange a file with financial statements, medical records, and correspondence with the hospital and your insurance company.
Even when the preemie comes home and it seems that everything will be okay, it's still possible that something might go wrong (especially, at first). Of course, you'll probably know what to do, because you're going to get specialized training. However, it will still be a great support for you to know that you have a professional to turn to in case you have any questions and concerns.
For this reason, be sure to take the contact number of your nurse from the NICU, as well as your doctor and your baby's pediatrician. Make sure that they'll be okay with you calling them and asking questions.
Depending on the baby's condition, parents might need the support of other medical specialists, now or in the future. According to Kids Health, the services of such doctors as neurologists, ophthalmologists, and physical therapists can be required to ensure the speedy recovery and normal development of the baby.
Besides, it's necessary to keep on running specific tests for a few years to measure the baby's vision, hearing, speech, and motor skills. So finding reliable specialists to attend in the very beginning and establishing a good relationship with them is important.
If you don't know how to find them, try asking the referrals from your nurse or pediatrician.
Giving birth to a preemie is an incredibly stressful experience. So apart from the normal hormonal fluctuations and emotional challenges of a new mom, you might also feel drained due to this stress and even blame yourself for doing something wrong that caused your baby to be born prematurely. In fact, there's probably nothing you did wrong, so try to throw these thoughts away and just take care of your baby in the best way you can. And don't forget about yourself, as well.
Whenever you need help, ask your partner, family member, or friend to give you a hand. Or, if they offer you assistance with doing household chores or looking after your older kids, say yes. Besides, seek support from your doctors and nurses. And, of course, eat well, get enough rest and exercise moderately. Remember that your baby needs a healthy mamma!
Finding someone with problems similar to yours is always helpful, especially when it comes to something as stressful as giving birth prematurely. So try to find other families with preemies and you'll realize that you're not the only one. You'll see that they mostly experience emotions similar to yours. They also might feel lonely or scared, unsure or guilty. After sharing such a huge experience and seeing how well you understand each other's emotions, you might even become lifelong friends.
The best way to find preemie families is talking to other parents while your baby is still in the NICU. Alternatively, you can join a support group recommended by your doctor.