When it comes to prematurity and the NICU, it can be hard to separate myth from fact. Parents are flooded with information from doctors, nurses and well-meaning friends and family. Not to mention the internet, which has its own pros and cons.
For those currently on their own NICU journey, those with high-risk pregnancies who anticipate a NICU stay, or those who may just be doing some research for a loved one, we’ve put together a few myths about prematurity and the NICU, followed up by reliable facts to help put your mind at ease.
Myth – You caused this.
Parents of preemies carry a great deal of guilt when it comes to their preterm delivery, beating ourselves up for failing our babies and not being able to protect them.
According to the World Health Organization, roughly half of all preterm births are due to unknown causes. About 30% are due to preterm premature rupture of membranes (pPROM), and 15-20% are due to medical causes such as preeclampsia, placental abruption, intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), or elective preterm deliveries. Other causal factors linked to preterm birth include prior medical conditions, genetics, environmental influences, infertility treatments, and improper prenatal care. (WHO)
Chances are you did absolutely nothing to cause your premature delivery. Prematurity can happen to anyone, even when expectant mothers “do everything right.”
Myth – You won’t be able to bond with your baby.
If you can’t hold your baby or sometimes even touch them, how will you ever create a loving bond with them?
You may not be taking your baby home right away, but there are a multitude of ways to bond with your baby. NICU parents just have to find new ways to connect with their baby around the NICU routines.
- Take part in skin-to-skin, AKA kangaroo care.
- Read or sing to your baby. Listen to episode 7 of the NICU Now podcast, where special guests Patricia Weiner and Emily Lawton talk about how to bond with your NICU baby through books. Then listen to episode 8, with NICU dad Tom French, who shares how reading Harry Potter to his daughter Juniper helped get them through her sometimes grueling six-month stay.
- Change diapers, take baby’s temperature, participate in feeding if possible.
- Bring items from home: photos, special blankets, items with your scent and more. Ask your NICU what is allowed in and around baby’s isolette or crib. Read more lesser-known ways to bond with your NICU baby.
Myth – Your baby will be all caught up by age two!
Maybe! But not necessarily. Most parents stop correcting for adjusted age around age two, but that doesn’t mean all former preemies will be on par with their peers by that age. Some preemies, especially very preterm and low birthweight babies, can still have delays in language development, gross motor skills (i.e. balance and coordination) and fine motor skills (i.e. holding a pencil, putting puzzle pieces together). About 40% of preterm children will have mild motor impairments. (Raising Children)
Some NICU babies will receive occupational and physical therapy interventions in the NICU and right after coming home. For others, the discovery of motor delays and sensory issues may not arise until years later.
Myth – Your 36-weeker isn’t really a preemie.
A preemie is defined as any baby born before the 37th week of pregnancy is completed. (WHO) Babies born between 34 and 37 weeks are considered “late term preemies.” While they often look like smaller versions of term babies, research has shown that they have a unique set of needs and challenges. And yes, they are still considered preemies.
Common challenges late term preemies face are:
- Respiratory problems
- Poor thermoregulation
- Feeding challenges
Late term preemies generally fair well medically and often have normal development in the first year of life. However, many of these babies present delays and learning difficulties as they grow, called “invisible disabilities.” Common challenges include:
- Speech delays
- Reading/writing difficulties
- Impulse control
- Organization skills
Read more about invisible disabilities in this article from Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin: Invisible Disabilities: Advocating for the Unseen.
Myth – Your journey ends when you leave the NICU.
Your baby is healthy enough to come home! Now you can leave the NICU behind you.
Bringing your NICU graduate home is an amazing milestone, but it doesn’t mean the journey is over. What friends and loved ones – and many NICU parents themselves – may not understand is that a premature or traumatic birth and NICU stay can have lasting physical and emotional issues for both kids and parents. NICU families have up to a 70% chance of developing anxiety, depression, and PTSD (NCBI). NICU parents are also at a higher risk for separation, divorce, and child abuse.
While those statistics may sound grim, they only enhance the need for NICU awareness and support for NICU parents both during their NICU stay and after. Research has shown that the mental health of the parent is as important as the medical care of the baby (NPA). Hospitals are taking this new information into consideration and developing more family-friendly initiatives that help get parents more involved in the care of their baby and help prepare them for life after the NICU.
No, you didn’t cause your premature delivery. Yes, you will be able to bond with your baby! Yes, a late-term preemie is still considered a preemie for many reasons. And while your preemie may not necessarily be caught up to her peers by age two, and the trauma of the NICU may still affect you years later, there are many support systems in place to help you along in your journey. You’ll be okay.