When you first realize that you’re pregnant, and are excited about it, you immediately start thinking about how wonderful everything is going to be. Your mind quickly begins planning for this new adventure you’re about to embark upon. You begin making lists of baby names and researching car seats, Pinteresting baby shower invitations and nursery themes, daydreaming about the days when you’ll be holding your sweet child in your arms. But for the 15 million people worldwide who experience preterm labor, these thoughts quickly take a backseat to more pressing matters. Suddenly, trying to decide between a cake shaped like a baby or a diaper seems completely ridiculous.
Although we are one of the most well-developed countries in the world, the United States still sees 1 in 10 babies born before they reach at least 37 weeks in the womb. And for many parents, this can become a life-or-death situation. My own daughter was born at just 22 weeks and died shortly thereafter. But I’ve also known many success stories. One of my best friends gave birth to her daughter at 27 weeks, and after six weeks in the NICU, she was able to go home to her family. Regardless of the outcome, however, these experiences stay with you for life, and many parents end up having many of the same thoughts as they struggle to make sense of why their child was born so soon.
And when your baby decides to make their entrance ahead of schedule, no matter what the circumstances, you end up having the following thoughts:
"Will My Baby Survive?"
The most terrifying thing about premature birth is the fact that many babies do not survive. Prematurity actually accounts for 25 percent of all neonatal deaths, or 1 in 4 babies. Even when the neonatologists finally tell you that your child will most likely survive, you are still scared out of your wits. And that fear carries on even after you bring them home, because they were so close to death so early in their lives.
"Did I Wash My Hands Enough?"
Anyone who’s had a preemie or a baby in the NICU knows the routine. You must scrub the living crap out of your hands and arms all the way up to your elbows with special hospital soap and hard, disposable brushes for five full minutes before going in to see your baby. Even if you go out to the bathroom for a second and wash your hands there, you still have to do this. You become obsessed with this routine, staring at the clock, hoping it’ll go by faster because you hear machines beeping or see doctor’s in your baby’s room and wonder if something is wrong. Your hands will never be or feel clean enough for you.
"What If I Leave The Hospital And They Need Me?"
This is always a terrifying thought. You want to be able to go home eventually, take a shower eventually, brush your teeth, maybe comb your hair, maybe get some sleep. But you’re also scared that something terrible might happen during that time. And you also wonder if your baby is missing you during that time. It is So. Damn. Hard.
"Is Someone In Here Sick? Will They Get My Baby Sick?"
When you’ve got a preemie, you become hyper-aware of any sneeze or sniffle or sign of illness from a mile away. You make sure to tell any sick friends or relatives (or those who have been sick in the past, oh, four months or so?) to stay the hell away until they are 100% better. And they better wash their hands and use hand sanitizer and maybe even wear a mask. Hey, better safe than sorry.
"Is My Baby Getting The Proper Care They Need? What If The Doctors Miss Something?"
At some point, your child’s doctors may get a bit sick of you. Sorry, it's true. Because you will probably question every single procedure, diagnosis, and method employed in your child's care. You’ll become an expert in your child’s condition(s). You’ll probably seek second opinions. You will obsess over all of this because you want to make sure they are taken care of properly. It’s a little over the top, but completely normal.
"They’re So Small And Fragile. Am I Going To Hurt Them Accidentally?"
Preemies are tiny little babies. You’ll wonder how in the world their doctors and nurses are able to find veins and put monitors on them without accidentally breaking them. You’ll be scared to touch them, to move them, to breathe on them. And oh jeez, to change their diaper? Scary, scary stuff. But you get used to it over time, and they grow. Slowly, but they do.
"Is [Whatever Thing That's Currently Happening With My Baby] Normal?"
When babies are premature, you don’t just coo over how cute they are. You monitor them constantly, wondering if that new, strange movement they just made is OK, or if their blinking is indicative of more than just moistening their little eyes, or if the sound they made actually means they need a pulmonologist or a cardiologist or some other kind of specialist. This begins to fade after some time, but it will be a lot at first.
"What If They Never Leave The NICU?"
When your preemie is in the NICU, you often fear that they’ll never leave. You begin to have bizarre fantasies that your child will go from NICU to PICU and basically grow up in the hospital. That...is probably incredibly rare. But you’ve been through a lot, and you're tired, and the days feel endless. It's easy enough to, at times, imagine that they are, in fact, going to be endless.
"More Importantly...WHEN Will They Finally Leave The NICU?"
You’ll ask all the nurses and doctors you can get a hold of when exactly you’ll be able to take this baby home. You’ll beg for a date. You’ll plead with them for it to be sooner. While my son was not a preemie, he did spend two months in NICU and I wound up calling a meeting with all his doctors to create a plan to have him come home sooner. Fortunately, my plan worked and he actually came home about a week or two earlier than expected, and he is right as rain these days. (See, I told it there are plenty of happy endings.)
"Will They Ever Get Any Bigger?"
Those teensy babies grow so slowly at first. I recall my own nieces, born prematurely, seemed like they would take forever to gain weight. But they did, and they are strong, healthy, 4-year-old girls. It might seem like they’re not getting any bigger, but eventually, so many of them grow up just like the rest of us.
"Why Did This Happen To My Baby? Hell, Why Did It Happen To ME?"
The bit, ever-pressing Why. No one knows exactly why. There are guesses, depending on the situation. But we simply often have to let go and know that the why isn’t as important as the fact that we have our babies with us.
"What Could I Have Done Differently?"
Another awful, invasive thought is wondering what you could have done differently. Maybe you think you should’ve taken the elevator instead of the stairs, or only eaten organic foods, or quit your job early to reduce stress. There’s really no use in all the “what if"-ing, but we all do it just the same.
"Will They Have Problems Or Delays Later In Life?"
When your baby is first born, depending how early they are, the doctors will likely mention the possibility of health problems and developmental delays they may experience. Often, this is just doctors being extra-cautious with your expectations. Sometimes though, there are some issues. And there's really just no way to know at first, which is arguably the most maddening thing of all.
"Will I Be Able To Take Care Of Them Properly At Home?"
Caring for a preemie with nurses and monitors around is different from caring for them at home. You’ll worry that home may be a more challenging environment. You adapt as a parent, just as the baby adapts, but in the beginning, the prospect of being in charge of your baby's care can be so overwhelming.
"Will I (Or My Partner) Ever Be Able To Have A “Normal” Pregnancy?"
This is one of the toughest thoughts we all have. Every parent wants to have a calm, uneventful pregnancy, but it’s sadly not always possible. And if you’ve gone into pre-term labor in the past, your risk of having a second premature baby automatically increases. That said, many people who’ve given birth prematurely have later gone on to deliver babies at full term. There’s really just no way of knowing for sure. But the good thing is, if you’ve experienced pre-term labor, there are plenty of things that can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again, like receiving progesterone shots, having a cerclage placed, going on bed rest, and carefully monitoring your baby’s progress. It’s so, so hard to be a parent, and much more difficult still when you experience pre-term labor. The important thing is to educate yourself on premature birth, and to stay positive and hope for the best.