When your baby comes prematurely, it’s tempting to hit the Internet in search of comfort and reassurance. While venturing online may turn up some useful facts about a certain diagnosis, or commiseration from other parents facing similar circumstances, it can also bring a lot of undue anxiety. Sometimes, it’s just best to avoid the internet altogether…
During my pregnancy, up until 26 weeks, I never thought I would have a preemie. I wasn’t in any sort of high-risk category, and the thought of delivering early hadn’t crossed my mind. Even after I went on bedrest starting at 26 weeks due to chronic placental abruption, I still didn’t want to believe my daughter would come early. Our neonatologist gave us a book all about preemies, which he had written, and I wouldn’t even crack it open. I thought I’d just spend my third trimester in a hospital bed.
When my daughter did come at 28 weeks, I was scared and overwhelmed. I was desperate for some sort of reassurance that she would grow up healthy, that the lack of a full 40 weeks in the womb hadn’t cost her dearly. I was scared for her future and overcome with guilt. I thought that because I hadn’t carried to term, I had ruined my daughter’s life. At the time, it seemed impossible that a baby could be born so tiny without there being any lifelong effects. I went online and started researching preemies: specifically 28-weekers, and how they had turned out.
To be sure, I found plenty of stories about 28-weekers that ended up being healthy, strong, intelligent, and utterly unaffected by their prematurity later in life. There were preemies who went on to become athletes. Former preemies were graduating from Ivy League colleges.
Unfortunately, across the Internet, peppered in with excellent outcomes were more concerning stories: articles about children who didn’t have their vision, who couldn’t walk, who had a variety of mental and physical disabilities as a result of having been premature. While these outcomes were less common, and while many of these dated back to when care for premature babies was much less advanced, in my strained mental state I latched onto those stories and wouldn’t let go. Standing beside my daughter’s incubator, I constantly scanned her for any sign of vision problems, or evidence that her limbs weren’t working properly.
For a scared and emotional parent, the lack of reassurance offered in the NICU can be a real challenge. For obvious reasons, even if they’ve seen a hundred cases like yours and they all turned out fine, the doctors and nurses aren’t going to give you any guarantees about your child. I pressed the issue often, but our neonatologists, physical therapists, and nurses would all tell me the same thing – your daughter looks good so far, but it’s too soon to tell.
In the end, none of my fears came to pass. We had a relatively uneventful NICU stay, and my daughter Evelyn’s only real struggle was with her immature lungs. After 68 days, she came home on oxygen. Several months later, she didn’t need any breathing help at all. She’s now a perfectly healthy, strong-willed and rambunctious 2-and-a-half-year-old who runs our household.
Later on, our neonatologist told me that from the moment he first saw my daughter, his decades of experience told him Evelyn would be just fine. He said that he wished he could have told me back then, but he couldn’t. I told him I really could have used that comfort during our NICU stay, but that I understood.
Every pregnancy is different, every baby is different, and every NICU journey is different. Two babies born at the same gestational age can easily have different outcomes, because there are so many other variables involved.
Instead of fretting needlessly about problems that might never come to pass, focus on the present. If your preemie has a diagnosis, by all means, become informed; it’s an important aspect of being an advocate for your baby, and the key to having productive conversations with his or her doctors. In hindsight, I wish I had focused solely on becoming informed about the facts of my baby’s medical needs, instead of dwelling on “what ifs” that only added to stress and grief.