When I unexpectedly went into labour at 34 weeks plus, I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t listen to nurses who told me that as preterm births go, this was “not that bad.”
If caring for a newborn is daunting, caring for a baby born before term is downright scary. We were first-time parents and neither of us had ever taken care of a newborn before; now we would have to care for a baby who was supposed to still be inside the womb?
We survived, and we learnt a few things that may help anyone who has to deal with this:
- Keeping your baby warm is paramount. When preemies are born, their skin is so thin because, just like the rest of their little body, it is underdeveloped. This makes it quite difficult for them to maintain body heat as well as full-term babies do. Furthermore, they’re usually thin, so the lack of body fat means they have no insulation from the cold. Thankfully, the warmth of a parent’s body, supported by blankets, can help a preemie who is out of the incubator stay warm. This is called kangaroo care; the practice of holding your diapered baby on your bare chest (if you’re the father) or between your breasts (if you’re the mother), with a blanket draped over your baby’s back.
- ALL babies lose weight when they’re born, and then start gaining. This goes unnoticed by many parents and doctors feel no need to mention it, but when your baby is already underweight to begin with (anything less than 2.5kg is underweight), every .01kg starts to matter. My baby was born at 1.57kg and I had already started counting up from there, only to find he had come down to 1.3kg in a few days and the doctors and nurses said it was normal for all babies. What? As if 1.57 wasn’t bad enough! So, when will we reach 2kg and be discharged??? Oh Lord, help!
- Sucking can be serious exercise. I used to think all a baby had to do was put his mouth at the breast and milk would come out with minimal effort, but when my tiny baby came out and was not allowed to suck until he hit 2kg, I learnt differently. The reality is that sucking is work for every baby, but for a preterm baby whom doctors and parents want to gain weight fast, it’s exercise that is so not needed. This is why premature babies are fed through an NG tube (nasogastric tube) in their nose — and later through a syringe in some hospitals — even when the sucking reflex is clearly there. No work for you, preemie, all we want you to do is grow, please.
- Dads matter. This is true for every mother and baby, but it is especially true in the case of a preterm birth. I don’t know how I would have survived without my husband, from going into spontaneous preterm labour induced by preeclampsia (the shock! “But I am not due!!”) to being discharged from the hospital with no baby in my belly and no baby in my arms (how can I go home empty-handed? Is it fair that I’m here and my baby is there without me?) And I wasn’t allowed to cry!
- You must take care of yourself. In between daily hospital visits and milk expressing sessions (you need to keep expressing and pumping to keep your supply up whether baby is suckling or not) you must take care of yourself. The road may be long, but your well-being is what’s best for your baby. If you let yourself become sad and you start crying, your milk production will drop. Your milk supply may also dip if you’re worrying or sleep-deprived. Your baby needs your milk, not formula, at this stage. Your baby also needs to get happy vibes from you even in the incubator, so do your best to stay cheerful and thankful for life. Hold yourself together, mum and dad. It’ll be worth it.
- What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. After four emotionally and physically taxing weeks of waiting, expressing, sitting beside my preemie in the incubator singing and praying, he eventually gained enough weight to be discharged, and a few days after that, he was allowed to suckle at the breast for the first time. I remember saying that if we survived that period we could survive anything parenthood threw at us. We needed that affirmation, because…
- You need to look out for complications. My baby’s paediatrician remarked that he was the most stress-free preemie she had ever cared for; he had strong bones, ate well, gained well, and there were no infections. We had no idea at the time that one of his eyes hadn’t developed properly or that this was one of the complications of prematurity. When we noticed that eye was different, we took him to an optometrist and embarked on another journey of tests, eye surgery at 7 months, and occlusion therapy which we are still on. Over and over we’ve been told, “thank God you were observant and noticed it early.”
Indeed we are thankful, as all parents of premature babies should be; where there is life, there is hope.
Shout out to all SCBU and NICU nurses, especially the ones who take excellent and wholehearted care of preterm babies at First Consultants, Obalende Lagos. You totally rock!