My preemies’ first “outfit” was not a family heirloom or a super cozy sleeper. It wasn’t even something that I picked out.
The first thing that my babies wore were tiny knitted hats of soft pastel yarn that had to be handmade by a volunteer because their heads were too small to fit store-bought hats. A hat was the only thing my babies could wear for weeks after their birth.
Something that I didn’t realize before my twins were born at 28 weeks and admitted to the hospital, was that babies in the NICU do not wear clothes. The sickest and smallest of babies are only in specially designed preemie diapers, the tiniest diapers you can even imagine, that are still too big for some. They don’t need clothing for warmth, as they are in a climate-controlled incubator. The clothing only gets in the way of the leads, wires, and tubes that are necessary to keep these little ones alive.
Seeing my bare babies was another reminder of how this wasn’t typical. It was a visual cue that I was not a normal parent, and I couldn’t do the very basic task of dressing my babies.
Before our NICU experience, I never thought my babies’ first piece of clothing would be considered a milestone. I had thought about finding a special outfit for leaving the hospital. But I never thought I would be so emotional over a tiny white cotton button-up sleeper until the day I arrived at the NICU and saw my babies in clothing for the first time. When a NICU baby is finally allowed to wear clothes, it is a big deal! It meant that they were getting better, growing, and requiring less medical intervention. It meant that I would be able to change their clothes, and for a brief moment, I would feel like a normal parent. I could momentarily forget about the wires and tubes, the monitors and machines, and just enjoy this nurturing moment with my child.
Years later, I still have the tiny preemie clothes that my kids wore in the NICU. I keep thinking that I should donate them, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. They are so much more than sleepers and onesies, they are a symbol of all my family has been through. And it’s not just those preemie clothes that are special to me. Anytime they grow out of a pair of jeans or size up in a new shirt, I’m reminded how far they have come and how much they have accomplished just by being alive.
There are certain milestones that every parent dreams about, like the day their child starts walking or says their first word. But if you are the parent of a NICU baby, you quickly learn about a whole new set of milestones that you never even knew existed. Milestones in the NICU are measured in grams and milliliters. So if you are not naturally a person who notices and celebrates the smallest of victories, you soon will become one.
A NICU baby has a lot of milestones to conquer well before the first steps are even considered. And while drinking their first bottle or wearing clothes for the first time might not seem like something special, for NICU babies, these accomplishments are sure something to celebrate.