What It Feels Like to Be the Parent of a Premature Baby

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Four out of five of my children were preemies. For nearly three months of my triplets’ lives and three weeks of my youngest child’s life we parented them through the wall of an incubator. They didn’t spend time in my hospital room after their delivery — or at all, for that matter. They didn’t come home with us the day I was discharged from the hospital or get passed around by friends and family as newborns. From the moment they were born, our lives were put on an emotional roller coaster. Every day, my husband went to work and I went to the hospital. I sat all day long in front of my babies, hoping I could do something to take care of them — anything that would make me feel more like their mother.

My triplets were born at 28 weeks and although we had toured the NICU knowing that, because we were having multiples, they would likely be premature, nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced. Soon after birth they were intubated, given feeding tubes, and hooked up to monitors. Even touching them could cause stress to their fragile systems. I sat at their incubators day after day waiting for those few minutes when I could reach inside their space and touch them. My son was the first to move to a lower level of oxygen assistance, a nasal cannula, so I was able to hold him first. There was no ease in holding him though, like you normally hold a newborn. It took at least five minutes for the nurse to get him ready to be moved from his incubator, situate all his tubes and wires, and then find a place in my arms that kept his breathing and heart rate stable. I cherished the times I was able to hold my babies but in the early days those moments were few and far between.

Every day I visited I had to scrub in and put on a hospital gown and then just wait for the chance to do anything that made me feel like I was taking care of them. I learned all the medical terminology involved in their care and helped the nurses do everything I didn’t need a medical degree to do. The first time I was able to give one of them a sponge bath I felt like I had won the lotto. It was so rare to be able to hold them and touch them for that long.

It took nearly two months before their feeding tubes were removed and the process of teaching them to nurse or bottle feed like typical babies was long and stressful. Some days their little bodies would remember what to do and some days they would choke and have trouble breathing and end up with a feeding tube again. Our whole NICU experience was like this: One day they would make progress and we could see the light at the end of the tunnel and the next they would take ten steps backward and it would feel like they were never coming home.

By the time the babies were close to coming home, I truly thought I was going to go crazy if they spent much more time in the hospital. Logically I knew they were where they needed to be but watching other people take care of my babies day in and day out was taking a toll on me. It got harder and harder to leave them each day and the calendar was inching closer to Christmas. I couldn’t even imagine having to spend the holiday without them.

Four days before Christmas we got the news that they would be coming home one after the other and it was such a relief. One of the happiest days of my life was rocking them in a rocking chair together once they were finally home. It’s amazing what you take for granted when you have a healthy full-term baby. Their big sister was born on her due date and I never thought holding or rocking her was a luxury I would one day covet.

My youngest child was a 34 weeker and after our long NICU stay with his siblings, his 10-day hospitalization seemed so much easier, but it still didn’t change the fact that I didn’t get to take my baby home right away. I was able to do a lot to contribute to his care each day in the NICU. He was in an open crib and only needed oxygen and monitoring. At his stage in development he could tolerate being nursed and bathed and held for long periods of time.

He was less fragile than his siblings so we were able to have visitors often and he even fit in the preemie clothes I often brought to the hospital. It might seem strange but something about putting him in baby clothes made his hospital stay seem a bit more normal. Seeing him in that hospital room in just a diaper with tubes and wires swirling everywhere reminded me too much of my experience with his siblings and I needed this to be different than that, less traumatic for all of us. I still had the excruciating task of leaving the hospital without him day after day though, and my post-birth hormones didn’t make it any easier.

Adjusting to life at home with preemies was complicated, especially with my 28 weekers. They had monitors — one came home on oxygen, the other on a heart monitor. There were extra doctor appointments and so many specialists to see. Despite the challenges though, I think back to those days and the days in the NICU are what I remember as the most stressful by far. Once they had made it home and I could hold them in my arms each and every day, the difficulties of their early beginnings faded away.

Photo: Getty