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Think your baby won’t come early? Think twice and prepare!

November 17 is World Prematurity Day. One in eight babies born in the United States arrives early, sometimes for no known cause.

Learn how to prepare if your little one is born too soon, and how to get through your baby’s subsequent hospital stay.

When I was expecting my first child and looked about to pop, I remember patting my burgeoning belly as I reassured my boss, “Oh, I have a feeling about this one. I think he’ll take his time.”

As I lay on the ultrasound table at 32.5 weeks’ pregnant, listing items I wanted my husband to fetch from home since I was about to be admitted to the hospital, I realized my preemie son, Charlie, was my new boss. Timing was entirely up to him, from that moment on.

Prematurity is defined as birth before 37 weeks’ gestation. In the United States, one in eight babies is born prematurely, according to the March of Dimes. Any number of conditions can cause premature birth, and as many as 40 percent of premature births have no known cause.

Meet Grant, 1 pound, 15 ounces

Jennifer was 23 weeks’ pregnant with her son, Grant, when her water broke without warning or known cause. She spent the next two weeks in the hospital. Grant arrived at 25.5 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 15 ounces. He was 13 inches long.

Over the next 96 days, Grant clung to life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), while Jennifer and her husband, Greg, clung to what Greg describes as “the dream of bringing Grant home from the hospital, just like most normal parents get to experience.”

“We spent a lot of nights crying ourselves to sleep,” Greg says. Looking back, Jennifer believes “ignorance was bliss, and kept me from really understanding how grave the situation was.”

The couple did what they could to surround Grant with love, filling his isolette with pictures of themselves and recording children’s books for the nurses to play for Grant when neither parent could be there.

U.S. preterm births drop

Jennifer and Greg’s story isn’t unique — and neither is their success. “Grant is super,” Greg reports. “Amazing and so smart!” Jennifer adds. At 7 years old, he shows no development issues.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. preterm birth rate peaked in 2006 at 12.8 percent, after rising steadily for more than two decades. It dropped to 11.7 percent in 2011, the lowest in a decade.

Prepare for preemie

Myra Wick, M.D., Ph.D., is a specialist in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Wick co-wrote Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy and is mom to four children.

In Dr. Wick’s experience, expectant mothers are surprised most often by complications that can arise from a premature birth, and the length of time the baby may need to remain in the hospital.

If you know your baby will arrive early, Dr. Wick advises touring the NICU and meeting with the neonatologists. “Ask questions,” she urges. “And don’t be afraid to ask more than once if there are lingering questions you don’t fully understand or don’t remember everything discussed.”

I was admitted on a Friday afternoon, and Charlie was born Tuesday morning. Over the weekend, my husband and I toured the NICU (me, by wheelchair). I’ll never forget the compassionate NICU nurses and the neonatologist who sat by my bedside, patting my hand and reassuring me through my tearful fretting.

Surprising lessons

No warning?

What if your baby arrives early with no warning? The Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy recommends the following:

  • Spend time touching and talking to your newborn.
  • Learn as much as you can about your baby’s medical condition.
  • Take an active role in your baby’s care.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Lean on someone.
  • Inquire if public health nurses or visiting nurses can assist with your baby’s care after you’re home.
  • Ask if your baby should be enrolled in special infant follow-up or infant development programs.

Over Charlie’s one-month stay in the NICU, we learned more than we ever wanted to know about Bradycardia, chest tubes, feeding tubes, kangaroo care and breastfeeding (my husband learned, too!).

One of the most surprising lessons was how to touch our preemie. A mother’s first instinct is to caress her newborn child, but for a premature baby, that type of touch may provide too much stimulation. We learned that a gentle, steady touch was best.

We also learned that eye contact can provide too much stimulation for a preemie. It was strange to realize, but that tiny baby is taking so much in, that direct, prolonged eye contact can cause sensory overload.

It was difficult to look away, but I remember feeling an overwhelming calm as I kept my face expressionless and averted my gaze from Charlie’s tiny, blinking eyes. It was something I could do for him when otherwise I felt helpless.

World Prematurity Day

November 17 marks World Prematurity Day. The Prematurity Campaign was launched in 2003 by the March of Dimes, a nonprofit working to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. The March of Dimes also funds research and advocates for legislation to improve care for mothers and babies.

In 2008, March of Dimes expanded its campaign globally, and this year the organization invites you to post on its Facebook page a story about a baby born early.

Have you been affected by a premature baby? Share your story below and help new parents of preemies know they aren’t alone.

Read more about prematurity

Birth age vs. developmental age
Benefits of kangaroo care for preemies
Advice for navigating the NICU

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