Approximately 15 million babies, or one out of every 13 babies, are born prematurely each year. A premature baby is an infant who is born before he or she reaches 37 weeks gestation. This term encompasses a broad spectrum of babies who may be as young as 22 to 24 weeks old.
Having your little one before he or she is due can not only throw off all of your plans for how your pregnancy and delivery will go, but it also means that you might have to leave the hospital without your little one. As a new mom of a preemie, it’s normal to feel a range of emotions from sadness and depression to anger and frustration. Learn the best ways to take care of your little one and yourself while he or she continues to grow outside of the womb.
Prepare Ahead of Time
The first time you visit your little one in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), be prepared for what you might see. Depending on your baby’s age and needs, he or she may be hooked up to a breathing machine, an IV, feeding tubes and may be very small in appearance.
Your partner will probably be the first one to see your little one. Ask your partner for a complete description and to take pictures in order to prepare yourself to meet your little one for the first time.
Just because you aren’t caring for your baby at home, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be involved. Talk with the nurses about helping with diaper changes, baths and feedings. If you can’t get involved in your little one’s care just yet, sit by, read, talk and sing to your baby. It will be comforting for both of you.
Pump, Pump, Pump
If you had plans to breastfeed your baby, it can be devastating to be told that your little one isn’t ready to nurse just yet. Breastfeeding is a complicated process for a baby that involves being able to suck, swallow and breathe in a repetitious pattern, which some premature babies aren’t ready for quite yet.
Just because you can’t nurse your little one just yet, doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your breastfeeding dreams. While you are in the hospital, request a hospital grade pump be brought to your room along with plenty of collection bottles.
Pump every three hours and bring the labeled bottles down to the NICU. They will be fed to your infant or frozen to be used in the future. Once you are home from the hospital, obtain a free, insurance-provided breast pump and use it every three hours. Bring this milk with you to the NICU. Pumping now will help you to have a well-established milk supply when your little one is ready to nurse.
Try Kangaroo Care
Hold your little one skin-to-skin as much as possible when he or she is in the NICU. This can help you to feel bonded to one another, increase your milk supply and help him or her to avoid infection while you aren’t able to bring your baby home. If your baby isn’t up to being held just yet (most doctors require that your little one can better regulate their own temperatures before trying kangaroo care), hold his or her hand or stroke their hair as you are able.
Leave Your Scent
Babies learn your scent while still in the womb. Leave a small blanket, a piece of fabric or a cloth doll that you have placed between your breasts with your little one. The smell of you will calm and relax your baby.
Take Time for You
It’s okay to leave the NICU, go home, shower, sleep and relax. Your baby will be home soon enough and running the show. Until then, make sure to take the time for yourself so that you can be at your best self when you visit your little one.
Keep a Journal
Time may seem to slowly crawl as you wait for your baby to grow enough to come home, but when you look back on this time, it will seem like a blur. Record your feelings, your baby’s accomplishments and any questions you have for the doctor now in order to be able to reflect on them in the future.
Learn the Doctor’s Schedule
Most doctors make their rounds at certain times of the day, check out the babies and then leave their orders in the care of the nurses. If you want your questions answered in person, learn the doctor’s schedule in order to be there when he or she examines your baby each day.
Designate One Person as the “Communicator”
You will be getting lots of texts, calls, social media messages and emails from well-meaning friends and family members. Answering them personally is both physically and emotionally demanding. Designate one person to be the family communicator and let him or her update loved ones on what you want to be shared about your little one’s health.
Go Ahead and Call
If you wake up in the middle of the night worried about your little one, don’t hesitate to call. The NICU nurses are experienced in caring for both premature babies and worried mothers and will update you on what’s going on with your baby.
Reach Out to Others
You are not alone (though it is easy to feel that way). Reach out to other moms in the NICU, in hospital support groups or online. Being able to talk with others who are going through the same thing will help to ease your fears and help you feel supported.
Having to leave your baby in the NICU when you go home due to his or her being born prematurely is a heartbreaking experience. Know that your little one is receiving the best care possible, take care of yourself, learn as much as you can about your baby’s health and needs and get ready. Before you know it, the time in the NICU will be passed and your baby will be at home and in the nursery just like you planned.