Reaching out to preemie parents
Until my son was born two months early in 2015, “prematurity” was a foreign concept. I knew acquaintances who had preemies, but did I think it would happen to us — with our first child? Never. But who does? When my husband and I took a childbirth class last March, we were the couple with the furthest due date (early June). Everyone else looked ready to pop. In reality, as I devel- oped severe preeclampsia just weeks later, we probably deliv- ered first. Oliver was born at 32 weeks gestation weighing 3 pounds, 9 ounces.
We’ve come a very long way from that April day, but Oliver’s prematurity is often on my mind — especially come November, which is Prematurity Awareness Month. An infant is considered premature if he or she is delivered before 37 weeks gestation. Of the near- ly 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year, approximately 380,000 babies are born early, according to the March of Dimes. More than 15 million are born prematurely globally.
Oliver arrived early after I developed preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening pregnan- cy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to the kidneys or other organ system, according to the Mayo Clinic. Left un- treated, it can lead to seizures, stroke and maternal and fetal death. The exact cause is unknown. The only “cure” is delivery of the baby and placenta, which often results in a baby’s premature arrival.
Most preemies will spend time in the NICU, the intensive care unit for infants requiring support after birth. Our son was hospitalized for almost a month before he was ready to come home.
That experience stays with you. If you know a preemie par- ent, now or in the future, here’s how you could help.
Make them a meal
Our son was delivered at a hospital almost two hours away, which meant a ton of driving. The most frustrating part of daily life involved feeding our- selves. Cooking was largely out of the question, so we survived on take-out and hospital meals.
When babies are born, friends and family often form a “meal chain” for the exhausted new parents. Even if their baby isn’t home, preemie parents still need that love and support. Bring them dinner: a casserole, lasagna, soup — something they can eat and reheat.
Food is about more than nour- ishment. For a preemie parent, it symbolizes comfort and com- passion. If you’re not a cook, of- fer to meet them at the hospital for a meal or to take them to a local restaurant. As time wore on, Spencer and I craved companionship and support. We needed a distraction. Company provided that.
Reach out, but give them grace
If your texts, calls and emails go unanswered, don’t take of- fense — but don’t take it as a sign you should stay away, either. Though I didn’t always have the strength to respond to messages, I read each one. Knowing people were thinking about us was a great source of comfort.
Statements like “I’m here if you need anything” are kind and well-meaning, but it’s bet- ter to be specific. Say, “I want to help. Can I give you a ride to the hospital this week? What night can I bring you dinner? Do you need help with laundry or yard work?” If they have other chil- dren, offer to come spend time with them, help with homework, etc.
Bring a care package
Life after an early birth becomes a study in commuting, sitting and waiting. “Real life” is put on hold. Consider putting together a care package with items like individually-packaged snacks, bottled water, hand sanitizer, unscented hand lotion, magazines or gift cards for gas, food or coffee. Not only is the thought nice, but the practical items will be a help.
Continue to be there
Remember their journey doesn’t end when their child comes home. He or she may face continued health issues — apnea, feeding problems, oxygen support, etc. — and will likely be isolated at home, especially for the first few months. That means your friend will be isolated, too.
Don’t take it personally if you’re not immediately invited to see the baby. When their child is discharged, parents face dueling emotions: excitement and joy that their baby is coming home, and fear at the thought of caring for them away from the NICU staff.
The risk of infection — especially during cold, flu and RSV season — is especially scary for preemie parents. They may sequester their child, letting him or her get acclimated with limited exposure to others for weeks or even months. Germs can be serious.
If your friend is able to take a break from the needs at home, offer to meet them out for a quick lunch or just to help run errands. Check in occasionally. Suggest some light comedies for them to binge-watch on Netflix.
More than anything, just be there. The fervent prayer of the preemie parent is that, with time, love and patience, their babies will grow into healthy, happy children. Everything takes time.
Be a friend to us on that journey. We need you.
For more information on prematurity, go to marchofdimes.org. To learn more about preeclampsia, go to preeclampsia.org.