Becoming the parent of a preemie can be a difficult introduction to motherhood. These five tips will help you cope.
Despite those last few uncomfortable weeks of pregnancy, no mother ever wants to give birth prematurely. While some pregnancy complications carry with them a higher risk of delivering early, other pregnancies end in premature birth for no apparent reason.
My oldest child, Rachel, turns 11 in June. When I was 29 weeks pregnant, I suffered a placental abruption. Rachel was lucky to make it out of the birth canal alive.
You’d never guess, now, that she began life the size of a Kleenex tissue box, weighing 3 pounds. She stayed in the NICU for 3 months. Rachel had almost every complication in the book and was resuscitated back to life at least a handful of times. After sleeping with an apnea monitor for 9 months, she required respiratory therapy for years in addition to physical, occupational, speech, and academic therapies.
Today, the only remnant of her hard start to life is reading glasses, courtesy of an eye disorder caused by the supplemental oxygen pumped to her lungs while in the NICU. Rachel is a healthy, very tall, confident, smart, and capable preteen. She loves to read and write and wants to become a lepidopterist when she grows up. You would never know her story by looking at her.
It was very difficult for me in the beginning. I had no say in how she was born. I didn’t get to hold her and only caught a glimpse as she was whisked away out the door of the delivery room. Barely comprehending what had just happened, I was bombarded with doctors quoting her survival chances. I felt utterly helpless, terrified, and incredibly confused at my role.
But my daughter had a wonderful team of nurses who took it upon themselves to empower me as a new mother. Here are 5 tips for all mothers of preemies:
1. Ask Lots of Questions, Even the Same Ones Over and Over
I comprehended next to nothing of what anyone was telling me in the first few days. I asked the same questions over and over. Each time, the NICU nurses patiently and compassionately answered them. What’s this tube for? How do you get her to “come back” when she stops breathing? What is this treatment for? What does this word mean? How long will she have to stay here? On and on.
At first, I apologized every time I asked a question, again. Then, a nurse told me that it was normal for the mother of a preemie to need to ask the same questions over and over. Apparently, that is how someone who has gone through something traumatic begins to process the experience. So, ask away.
2. Do Your Research
In addition to asking questions of the NICU staff, get online and do your own research. Resolve to know your baby’s complications and diagnoses inside and out. Become a student in NICU care and vocabulary. Start learning what to expect when your baby comes home.
Everything is easier when we are able to make informed decisions on our preemie’s care — or at least know what the doctor is talking about.
3. Call In the Middle of the Night
The NICU staff will contact you with regular updates on your baby’s health status. But you will worry, or at least wonder, about your baby when you leave the hospital. Take heart that it is certainly your right to be able to call the NICU whenever you want an update — no matter the time of day or night.
Checking in on your baby will help you feel reassured. It will also help you in your process of recovering emotionally from the birth and in bonding with your baby.
That said, if you feel very anxious, overwhelmed, scared, sad, or depressed, you may want to talk to your health care provider. Postpartum anxiety or depression is very common for mothers of preemies. Getting treatment is not a sign of weakness and will help you ever more in your transition to motherhood.
4. Pump Your Breastmilk
You may be overwhelmed by the thought of pumping your breastmilk while your baby is in the NICU. But you have to understand that providing breastmilk to your preemie is not merely an infant-feeding choice. Breastmilk is like medicine for your preemie. Formula puts preemies at risk of serious intestinal disorders.
Start pumping your breastmilk a few hours after delivery and continue at least every 3 hours around the clock. It’ll be hard to keep doing it, especially at first when you’re getting just a few drops and later when a full night’s sleep is oh-so-tempting. But providing breastmilk gives baby something that no amount of medicine or other medical therapies can do. Think of your breastmilk as your superpower! You are giving your baby something that no one else can give.
Although donor breastmilk is becoming more widely available, your own breastmilk is ideal. All mothers make unique breastmilk that is specific to their own baby. Plus, pumping your breastmilk — starting early and continuing to do so frequently — establishes your milk supply for later feeding baby at the breast.
5. Do Kangaroo Care
Bonding with your newborn is incredibly valuable, not only for your mental well-being, but also for your preemie’s physical health. Skin-to-skin contact is increasingly recognized as beneficial for all newborns, full-term or not. The technique boosts bonding hormones in both mom and baby, increases mom’s milk-making hormones, encourages baby to latch, and regulates baby’s temperature, breathing, and heart rate.
Skin-to-skin contact is referred to as Kangaroo Care when provided to premature or ill newborns. Kangaroo Care calls for baby to be undressed to the diaper and placed on mom’s bare chest between her breasts. A NICU baby would be wearing a hat and also covered with a light blanket, keeping the face clear. Mom, or dad, and baby could remain in this position for hours. In some countries, especially those without access to modern health care, Kangaroo Care is used in lieu of incubators — quite effectively.
I really didn’t start bonding with my baby until I was allowed to do Kangaroo Care with her. It was very healing for me. Skin-to-skin contact also empowered me all the more to continue pumping breastmilk and looking forward to the day when I would bring her home.
And this year, I get to celebrate 11 years with her.