Although rare, preterm birth is feared by many pregnant women and their partners, particularly in the second trimester when there is a high risk of your baby not surviving or, if surviving, having a lifelong disability. Preterm birth is defined as any baby born before 37 weeks of gestation and is categorized as:
- Late preterm (the baby is born between weeks 34 and 36 of pregnancy)
- Moderately preterm (the baby is born between weeks 32 and 34 of pregnancy)
- Very preterm (the baby is born between 25 and 32 weeks of pregnancy)
- Extremely preterm, or (the baby is born at or before 25 weeks)1
Another term used is ‘micro-premmie’, when the baby is born weighing less than 1 pound, 12 ounces (800 grams), or before 26 weeks gestation.2
Nowadays, medical technology is very advanced and babies are surviving at ever younger ages, with the earliest premature baby to survive reported so far being James Elgin Gill, who was born at 21 weeks and 5 days.3
Tips for coping with the NICU experience
If you have a preterm birth, it is likely that your baby will spend at least some time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Generally, the earlier the birth, the longer your baby will be in the NICU. Tips for coping in the NICU include:
- Establishing a routine
- Connecting with other NICU parents
- Celebrating when you can and daring to experience joy
- Venting your emotions if your baby has a setback – don’t hold back.
- Keeping a journal – expressing your feelings on paper can help you to cope with them and to move through them
- Accepting the support and help of others – now is not the time to try and be Superwoman or Superman
- Accepting that you and your partner may react differently to the situation5
- Trying and spend at least a little bit of time away from the NICU – take a walk or go for dinner somewhere
- Getting ready to pump – even though your baby is too small to suckle, your breast milk is still invaluable and will be given to your baby through a tube
- Asking your physician about the COPE NICU program, an evidence-based educational-behavioural intervention program for parents of preterm infants7
Bringing your preterm baby home
So, finally your baby is considered well enough to come home – this is definitely a cause for celebration! Here are some pointers to make the transition as smooth as possible:
- Say yes to ‘nesting’, a service usually offered by the hospital where you can stay overnight with your baby before he or she is released. Nurses and other staff may be at hand, but you are the primary person responsible for your baby during the night. This can be a great confidence booster for things like changing diapers, feeding, and checking your baby’s monitors.
- Keep your lactation consultant’s number handy – premature babies can present special breastfeeding challenges, such as falling asleep before they are properly fed.
- Stock up on premmie equipment, such as appropriately sized clothes and diapers; you may also need a special car seat for your premmie, which you might be able to borrow from the hospital.
- Learn emergency medical techniques – this is a good idea for all new parents with babies, but in particular those parents with premmies. Also, if your baby requires a lot of additional equipment, make sure you understand what it all does before you leave the hospital.8