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I’ve written a very similar post, 8 Things to Never Say to a Preemie Parent (And What to Say Instead) so I hope this doesn’t feel redundant (and if you know anyone with a preemie and haven’t read it, I recommend it).
With that in mind, the point of this article is not to compare, but in fact the opposite. To show that our situations are probably different from each other. That doesn’t make one better or harder or easier than another, just different. So listen up, learn something, and appreciate the journey that thousands of people go through every day and lose the misconceptions.
1 | “Preemies are just tiny babies”
Technically yes, they are babies that are tiny. They are also babies that are tiny that are underdeveloped. They didn’t get to ‘cook’ as long as a term baby, so often they are shot up with steroids before delivery to help inflate the lungs. If the lungs don’t inflate, the baby doesn’t breathe because the baby isn’t supposed to learn how to breathe for another few weeks/months. They are tiny babies that never get the antibodies that the placenta releases only in the third trimester that acclimate a baby to live outside of a womb. Tiny babies that don’t get a chance to finish developing their nervous systems, immune systems, bone mineralization, neurological systems and so much more. Tiny babies with holes in their hearts that normally close in the last few weeks of gestation. They are tiny babies because normally their weight triples in the last trimester. So yes, they are tiny babies, but they are not JUST tiny babies.
2 | “Once they’re discharged from the NICU they aren’t preemies anymore”
Oh, how I wish this was the case. Generally, preemies don’t ‘catch up’ to their peers until the age of 2. However, as our NICU doctor said, the real rule is 1 year to catch up for every month they are born early. For example, my daughter was born almost 3 months early, which means she won’t be caught up until closer to the age of 3. Furthermore, there are recent studies saying this may not be the case at all, and there is no ‘catch up’ date.
EVERY child regardless of when they were born will grow at their own rate. Some start teething at month old, others at a year. Some walk at 6 months, some walk at 2 years. I would beg you to stop comparing children in general, but when it comes to a preemie, leave them out completely. The best way to measure milestones for a preemie is by ‘adjusted age’. This means the age they would be if they were born on their ‘due date’. For my daughter, this means she measures milestones 3 months behind her actual age. And while these milestones are closer for her, she doesn’t always hit these either, and that’s perfectly normal for a preemie.
Furthermore, my daughter will always be referred to as a preemie with doctors, even in adulthood. It’s important because if she decides to have kids of her own someday, it’s highly likely she will have a preemie as well. Being a preemie doesn’t end when you leave the NICU. It makes you susceptible to certain diseases and infections for the rest of your life. Not to mention the motor, sensory, language, and physical delays that can affect a child for the rest of their life.
3 | “You did something to cause yourself to have a preemie.”
There are a million reasons a baby can be born early. And yes, there are things that people can do to cause it. But most preemies aren’t caused by something someone did. They usually happen because of complications. I had severe pre-eclampsia with kidney failure, placental abruption, and uterine rupture. You can read more on my Journey Into Motherhood. If she didn’t come out then, she and I both would have died. I didn’t cause that. I can’t make myself have those complications. They are natural complications that no one can predict. In fact, they don’t even know why some women get pre-eclampsia. And the minute I was diagnosed they put me on medication and weekly check-ins (and one of those check in’s saved our lives)! To assume someone did something to cause it is one of the most disrespectful and hurtful things you can do to someone who is already feeling like a failure and grieving for their situation.
I’m not here to throw science or statistics around, google can help with that. But no. Preemies don’t need that. My NICU and pediatricians have all said wait until at least 2 before exposing to too much. Why? They are underdeveloped children. My daughter had multiple holes in her heart, and a weak immune system. A simple cold could have killed her. Her first year of life we didn’t leave the house. No grocery store, no Target. We couldn’t risk it. We have hand sanitizer in every room of the house, and no one was allowed near her if they were even in the vicinity of a sick person recently.
A weak immune system can’t handle the same things as a strong immune system. Generally, term babies have stronger immune systems because they were able to fully develop in the womb and their immune systems can handle being exposed to new things, temporarily weaken to learn, and fight it. Preemies don’t have that luxury, weakening an already weakened system can cause permanent damage or worse, death.
5 | “The baby will be in an isolate and/or can’t touch it”
This could be considered a touchy subject as everyone’s experience will be different. For example, I had a C-section and had complications, I didn’t get to meet my child for 12 hours. When I did, however, I got to hold her. Yes, she was in an Isolate and stayed in one for quite a while. She even got out it only to be put back multiple times over the course of her NICU stay. But my experience isn’t everyone’s. Some people see their babies right away. Some people don’t get to touch their babies for weeks. Every baby born has its own set of complications and issues that will dictate the type of bed they will be in and for how long, and whether they can be touched or held.
But, the biggest reason for the isolate is to regulate temperature, a baby can graduate out of the isolate when they start holding their temperature themselves. In fact, regulating temperature is one of the major milestones a baby must achieve to leave the NICU so its a pretty big deal! As for touching, again it depends on the situation, but when possible the NICU will always recommend kangaroo care. This is skin to skin contact, with shirt off, baby lying against your chest. It helps them learn to regulate temperature, bond with parents, and soothes them, stabilizing their heart and respiratory systems.
At the risk of sounding redundant, just be careful around preemie parents. We are scared, tired, and full of emotions. We are going through a very different experience than you, and it’s not to say its better or worse, just different. We promise to try our hardest not to compare our children or experience to yours if you promise to do the same.