It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to hold my daughter right after her birth. She was born nearly three months too early – and it was a whirlwind, emergent situation bringing a premature baby into the world. And I was completely and utterly shell-shocked by everything happening around me.
When my second daughter was born, I was slightly more prepared mentally for the possibility of her being born premature because I worked closely with high-risk doctors. But despite doing everything we could, she was still born six weeks early.
My pregnancy and girls’ birth stories are not unique. In fact, about 1 in 10 babies are born too soon each year in the United States.
Those first few months after birth – for my oldest especially – were some of the most difficult I have ever been through. I felt helpless, but I didn’t want help. I felt alone, but I didn’t want to let anyone in. And I blamed my body for failing me not one, but two times.
And looking back, logically, I know that I’m not to blame. I followed every guideline out there to make sure that my girls had a healthy start at life. The reality is that prematurity is still a big mystery for the majority of premature babies and I feel comforted now knowing that there are many brilliant researchers at Cincinnati Children’s and around the country trying to solve it.
Now that my daughters are nine and six years old, I’ve had some time to reflect upon our time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and what I learned along the way. If you or someone you know has had a premature baby, here are some tips for those first few weeks and months, especially if they’re in the NICU:
- Don’t shut people out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my coping mechanism during my oldest daughter’s time in the NICU was to push people away. I was sad, depressed, and grieving. So I shut people out. Then naturally, I wound up feeling very alone. I think if I had let my family and friends in, I might have had an easier time coping with her preterm birth.
- If the NICU has a support group, go. Our NICU had a parent support group, and I am eternally grateful for it. It was powerful to talk
to other parents who were going through the same thing as me. While my family and friends were supportive and well-intentioned, they weren’t going through it in the same way. Only other NICU parents could truly relate to my situation.
- Give yourself a break. It’s okay to feel sad. And angry. To grieve because things didn’t turn out the way you thought they would. Whatever feelings you’re having, I recommend that you acknowledge them. But please know that there’s a fine line between feeling sad and postpartum depression. If you’re slipping into depression, please talk to your doctor about it.
- Capture memories. It might seem odd to someone who isn’t going through it, but take pictures while your child is in the NICU. Take pictures of her in the isolette. Her first bath. The first time she held your finger. Don’t feel like you have to be robbed of those memories, just because your baby is in the NICU. The “firsts” may be different than what you pictured, but they’re your memories. And while my youngest wasn’t in the NICU, they both love to look back and see what they looked like and how tiny they were.
- Learn what you can. Maybe it was another coping mechanism for me, but I tried to learn everything I could about prematurity. I wanted to have a better understanding of what was happening to my daughters. Their treatments. Their development. So I read books on it. I found this book on prematurity to be particularly helpful: Everything You Need to Know About Your Premature Baby from Birth to Age 1.
Looking back, the experience of having two premature births was a complete mixture of emotions. They were both the happiest and scariest moments of my life. But like any parent, I wouldn’t trade those memories and experiences for anything in the world. They’ve made me and my girls who were are today – strong, determined, independent females.