By Darline Turner-Lee, mother to preemie Vanessa and founder of Mamas on Bedrest & Beyond
As a parent of a late-term preemie, I found myself completely unprepared for the emotional fallout after my child was born early and with breathing problems. Term births are considered pregnancies carried to 40 weeks. Babies born at 37 week gestation or earlier are considered premature. Even though I had been at risk and was very nearly on bedrest at several different points during my pregnancy, the topic of a neonatal ICU (NICU) stay never entered the conversation. I worked in the medical field for many years and still felt unprepared for my child’s stay. I sincerely wish my OB and I could have discussed these possibilities in advance. If you are pregnant, here are some tips and questions to help you prepare your own backup plan in case your child is born earlier than expected or with complications.
Have a frank discussion with you obstetrician about preterm labor and prematurity. As your pregnancy progresses, ask them, “What would happen to my baby if s/he were born today?” Find out if your hospital has a NICU, what level of care it provides and if your baby could receive care there. Get in the habit of asking the question and don’t let them hedge the answers. Your question may be met with, “Why would you want to even contemplate such a thing? Everything is just fine” or “You stay calm and let me worry about you and this baby.” Keep pressing. It’s important that you know what to expect.
Learn the Signs of Preterm Labor & Have a Backup Plan
Learn the signs of preterm labor, and discuss this with your obstetrician. Have a tentative plan for what you would do and who you would call if you went into labor earlier than expected.
Go by the NICU in the hospital where you expect to deliver
Where possible, find out where the NICU is located in your hospital or where your baby would be transferred if your hospital doesn’t have a NICU. You may be able to learn about the NICU on your maternity ward tour. If not, ask. Depending on your hospital’s policies, you may or may not be able to enter, but you can speak with the nurses and get a feel for who will be taking care of your baby if they need intensive care.
Books can be good, but most pregnancy books don’t cover preterm labor and prematurity very extensively. If there are a few pages, let alone an entire chapter, on preterm labor and prematurity, that’s more than what many parents get in the way of exposure. While certain health complications may place mamas at risk for a child born early, in nearly half the cases, the cause is unexpected or completely unknown. Seek out books that cover this topic, visit educational websites and talk to parents of preemies. Additionally, get hooked up with the March of Dimes. The resources they have available are extensive to say the least. If you know you are at high risk, read my 8 tips for preparing for a high-risk pregnancy.
Learn About Support Groups
Consider connecting with parents of preemies. They are far and away the best resource about what it’s really like. Numerous support groups exist online through blogs, facebook groups, websites, and forums. Here’s a list of preemie parents support groups I have been keeping. And, don’t forget that Hand to Hold provides support and parent matches in the event that your child is born early or with complications, too. They also have an interactive resource database to find even more specific help. Also, be sure to look for local support groups that may be available already in your hospital.
Pick up a few books on the subject
Here are a couple of books that I think may be useful for parents of premature infants.
- The Preemie Primer by Jennifer Gunter, MD. In addition to recounting her own experience as a mother of premature infant boys, Dr. Gunter also provides many resources and tips on navigating the health care system, obtaining resources for your child and taking care of yourself as a parent during one of the most stressful times of transition a woman, couple and family can experience.
- Fragile Beginnings by Adam Wolfberg, MD. Fragile Beginnings is the personal account of the birth and subsequent NICU journey of Dr. Wolfberg’s youngest daughter Larissa. While the book provides a lot of information and background rationale for the care of premature infants, there is not a lot of practical information for parents. It is a good read if one wants to understand why neonatologists are making certain decisions for their child.
Most parents don’t expect their baby to come early. To say, it’s a shock would not be a strong enough term, but this is today’s reality for 1 in 8 moms who will have a baby born early. A NICU stay, no matter how short or long, has often been described as an emotional rollercoaster. Read my personal story – Unprepared For Any NICU Stay. That’s why I urge you to prepare yourselves for the possibility—call it insurance—and speak to your health provider about what could happen and how to best prepare IF your child is born early.
Darline Turner-Lee is the owner of Mamas on Bedrest. She is a woman’s health advocate and provides education, support and resources to women with high risk pregnancies on bed rest. Darline has 17 years of experience as a physician assistant, ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist and perinatal fitness instructor. In addition to two miscarriages, she is the mother of two children, one born just before 37 weeks gestation. Turner-Lee holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Tufts University and a Master of Health Science Degree from Duke University Medical Center’s Physician Assistant Program.