My former preemie just turned a year old, and I still can’t entirely make sense of my son’s unexpected start. I’m sure this is common among moms of preemies. I never anticipated my second child would arrive nearly two months early. Especially after my first was born more than a week past my due date. Having a baby at 33 weeks threw me for a loop. I wish I could go back in time and give my freshly postpartum self some reassurance. While I can’t, I can share the advice I wish I could’ve given myself last year instead.
What I Wish I Could’ve Told Myself One Year Ago When My Preemie Was Born
Whether you’re walking or have already walked a similar path, I hope you find comfort in these words. This is the advice I wish I could’ve given myself a year ago.
1. Don’t Feel Guilty for Taking Time for Yourself or Not Being at the Hospital 24/7
My preemie was in the NICU for three weeks after he was born. He was home for a total of a day short of a month upon release. Then he was back in the PICU for two weeks when he came down with a case of RSV. All the while, I was recovering from a life-threatening emergency C-section. And I was trying my best to keep up with my then 1 ½-year-old at home. As much as I desperately wished I could be with my newborn and toddler around the clock, I couldn’t be everywhere all the time.
I wish I could’ve told myself that it was okay for me to take care of myself. Even more, I didn’t have to feel guilty about taking a shower or an occasional 15-minute cat nap. I wish I could’ve told myself that it was okay to take a break from the free-for-breastfeeding-moms hospital cafeteria food. That it was okay to sit at my kitchen table and eat a hot meal between hospital runs. I wish I could’ve told myself that we’d all be better off with more self-care in my daily routine. I wish I could’ve told myself nobody kept a score of how many hours I logged at the NICU check-in station daily.
2. Breathe: Your Preemie Will Grow and Overcome These Obstacles
Though he was born at an excellent gestation weight, my preemie was still a preemie. He was small. I remember being nervous to even change his diaper in the NICU out of concern for whether I was adequately handling such a tiny being. During his feeding tube days, I waited patiently for the thumbs up from my baby’s nurses to try latching him or even to bottle feed. Then, when that time finally came, I often left disheartened that he wasn’t taking the full feeds he needed to be discharged. As proud as I was of every single milliliter he managed to consume, I wanted my newborn home. Who wouldn’t?
I wish I could’ve told myself to trust the process. That we’d move from measuring feeds by single milliliters of milk to full-fledged 4-, 5-, and 6-ounce bottles soon enough. I wish I could’ve told myself my baby would grow past 5 pounds in time. So much so that people would gasp in surprise one day at his former preemiehood. I wish I could’ve told myself to be more patient during the feeding tube days and tiny-bottle feeds and worry a little less. As it turned out, my preemie was a natural with breastfeeding (and full-size bottle feeding). I wish I could’ve told myself to breathe because every slow bit of growth in the NICU would one day add up to a healthy, happy baby.
3. This Blip Will Not Negatively Impact Your Relationship With Your Preemie Baby
When my preemie was born via emergency C-section following labor gone wrong, I was out cold under general anesthesia. I didn’t get to hear his first cries or be the first one to hold him. I didn’t even get to hold him until more than 24 hours after his arrival. I was recovering from a severe postpartum hemorrhage, receiving blood transfusions, and fighting to survive. I didn’t get that gold standard “golden hour” society speaks so highly of.
I didn’t get real skin-to-skin with my preemie until several weeks in. Once I recovered and left my hospital room, I couldn’t stay by my son’s bedside 24/7, as I also had his big sister at home. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was, in hindsight, probably a bit scared to get too attached to my beautiful baby boy.
I wish I could’ve told myself that my relationship with my preemie wouldn’t be negatively impacted by his weeks-turned-months spent in and out of the hospital. Despite it all, he’d know me as “mama” and find comfort in my arms. I wish I could’ve told myself that our bond would take time — but it would grow into something so perfect and precious. I wish I could’ve told myself not to compare our story to any of those “gold standard” birth stories on social media. That ours may not have been ideal, but it was uniquely ours — and equally remarkable.
4. None of This is Your Fault, So Go Easy on Yourself
It’s been over a year since my former preemie was born — and I still don’t know why my body went into labor when it did. At this point, I may never have answers. I struggled not to beat myself up over how everything played out. I struggled with immense guilt for abruptly leaving my attached-like-glue firstborn in the middle of that ordinary Saturday night. I also felt guilty when leaving her baby brother’s NICU room to head home. Honestly, I still struggle with the heaviness of all of it. Mom guilt is real enough as it is, and NICU mom guilt has a way of taking things to a whole new, gut-wrenching level.
5. You Will Trust Your Body Again
I wish I could’ve given myself grace and been gentler on myself for my body going into labor that early. I wish I could’ve told myself there would come a day when I could face my C-section scar in the mirror with pride or acceptance rather than shame. I wish I could’ve told myself it was okay not to be in two places (or with both babies) at once. That there would come a day when the heartache of being apart from each at every given point would lift.
I wish I could’ve told myself how perfect it would feel to have both babies in my arms. That I’d run and play, laugh, and dance with my kiddos. I wish I could’ve told myself there might even come a point when I’d daydream about maybe (just maybe) adding a third to our family. I wish I could’ve told myself it would all be okay because it has.
I won’t sugarcoat it and say everything works out for preemies; sadly, that isn’t always the case. I count my blessings daily for my family’s once-challenging journey turning into a victory story. There’s no doubt about it that the psychological effects of premature birth are alive and real.1 No matter the long-term outcome, having a baby before term is a roller coaster of an experience with a lasting (and sometimes core-shaking) impact on mamas. Now that my former preemie has celebrated his first birthday and is thriving, I only wish to give my former self the advice I desperately needed a year ago. So, preemie mama, I’m passing the torch — and the wisdom. This one’s for you!