While no one is ever truly prepared for parenthood, being the parent of a premature baby or multiples presents its own set of unique challenges. In most cases, the reasons why a baby may be born early or before 37 weeks gestation are unknown or cannot be put down to a single cause but is often due to a number of contributing factors which your medical provider will advise you of.
After experiencing an uneventful pregnancy followed by the sudden and premature birth of my children, I would like to share some tips and my own experiences with other parents of premature infants or expectant parents looking for further information or going through a high-risk pregnancy. Remember to always seek the advice and support of your medical provider first and foremost.
In the early stages, you are likely blaming yourself and wondering what you did or did not do that might have caused the premature birth. The feelings of guilt and self-blame are natural but, in most cases, there might not have been much you could have done to prevent premature birth. For my own pregnancy, I was eating and exercising healthily and was being monitored by both an obstetrician and perinatologist with no health concerns such as gestational diabetes, infection, or pre-eclampsia. Sometimes there is just no known medical explanation for why these sorts of things happen.
(2) Be informed and ask questions
My husband and I found ourselves bewildered and stunned in the early hours right after our twins were born by emergency caesarean section. You just don't think it will happen to you until it does. We found the best thing to alleviate some of our anxiety and fear over our little ones was to ask the nurses and doctors lots of questions about the medical issues our children would be facing. We were very grateful for the information we received from the hospital and we used some of our time, when we were away from the hospital, to also connect with local support groups and research and charitable organisations for relevant information which helped us make informed decisions about our children's medical treatment.
(3) Take care of yourself
This might seem obvious but with all the stress you are going through you may neglect your own needs without even realising it's happening. You are not going to be at the hospital all the time to be with your child so if you need to do something as simple as getting a coffee or just taking time out, do it.
(4) Use this time to get ready for when your baby comes home
Your time away from your child is not time wasted or being neglectful. Use this time to get the baby's room ready and baby supplies in order, arrange or finalise your leave from employment if any, and run any errands you may not have time for later on or which you might forget.
(5) Visit the hospital as often as you can
Again this may seem glaringly obvious but there are situations where you may not have the luxury of being close to the neonatal intensive care unit or you are not able to visit as often as you would like for any number of reasons. Depending on how premature a baby is born, your child may just be about the tiniest infant you have ever laid your eyes on which may cause you to be reluctant to hold your child for fear of causing more harm than good. You may have never held a baby or it may have been years since you have. It will also be a daunting experience seeing your child hooked up to various medical equipment and the sounds and smells of the hospital setting. Remember the medical staff will keep a close eye on your baby's vital signs while you hold them and will instruct you on how to hold your baby as needed.
(6) Get help from your family and friends when your baby comes home
Help from your family and friends will allow you to get sleep, decompress from being overwhelmed, and catch up on any tasks or errands. You will also likely be the recipient of many home made meals and other offers of assistance. Your baby routine of feeding, burping, changing, bathing, and putting to sleep will ease up once your child transitions to more solid foods as they are able to sleep longer and you will be able to get more rest.
(7) Other medical concerns
The first 6 months will feel like a blur when you look back on this time with your family as your child may have some continuing health issues which need to be monitored once they come home. One of my own children needed a naso-gastric tube for a few weeks to be fed properly but we eventually transitioned to being able to use a normal baby bottle. Your child may also need more intensive and/or regular medical check-ups even after coming home. Rest assured you will be advised by your medical provider as needed.
(8) Monitor your baby's milestones
Keep in mind that there may be delays, some minor and others more significant, in your child achieving certain milestones due to their prematurity. The usual development charts detailing milestones need to be adjusted depending on when your child was born and what other medical conditions or issues they have. As an example, if your child was born 3 months early, refer to the milestones for a 3 month old for a 6 month old baby. The typical advice is that most children born prematurely will catch up on milestones by 2 years of age. Every child will be different on when they reach certain milestones so make sure you keep any follow up medical appointments so you can seek appropriate medical advice and support if you have any concerns.
(9) Be clear about your wishes
You're probably going to be told at some point, by well meaning family or friends, that you are being paranoid if you ask them to postpone a visit if they are sick. My advice to you is you are not being paranoid but simply doing your duty as a parent to take care of the most vulnerable member of your family. Your premature child's immune system is not as well developed as an at term baby and limiting their exposure to illnesses of any kind will give them time to develop and remain healthy.