In 2011 I thought I was going to lose my baby. Actually, I was assured time and time again that I would go into labour before the doctors could save my little girl, writes a NSM whose daughter was born before her time.
The night my daughter was born I couldn’t look at her. I heard her tiny cry, like a lost kitten, and saw her miniature 955g frame and turned my head away, shocked at how fragile she was. How my body had failed her at just 26 weeks gestation. Being such an early gestation and low birth weight, she was classified as a micro prem – she was a bit bigger than a Sophie the Giraffe teether. My story is not unique. About 45,000 babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks) each year. That is a staggering 7.7 per cent, according the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Of those, more than half will spend time in a neonatal unit called a NICU (a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), and 1000 will die. And yet it still remains one of the lesser understood infant phenomenons. Though varying by gestation, prematurity can mean a range of disorders and illnesses, some ongoing and some temporary. It often means suppressed immunity, developmental delays, chronic lung disease, cerebral palsy, or failure to thrive.
Not surprisingly, due to the incredibly challenging hospital stay facing premature babies the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as Post Natal Depression in parents of these infants is staggeringly high. A US study of 30 women six months after having a high-risk preterm baby found some startling results: 12 of the 30 participants had two of the symptoms of PTSD, with 16 participants having three. It’s difficult to understand unless you have been on bed rest awaiting a heartbreaking, life-changing event, or experienced the ups and downs of an NICU for months on end.
When I was on bed rest, I would watch the clock ticking second by second, knowing that each day meant a two to three per cent chance increase in my daughter’s chances of survival. I became acutely aware of the value of minutes and seconds. Once in the NICU that tick of the clock was replaced by the beeps of machines, each one intrinsically tied to my daughter’s survival. A NICU stay is nothing if not traumatic, and often there are other small children to consider from both a practical and emotional perspective. Doctors in the NICU are fond of warning parents that having a prem baby will inevitably mean taking two steps forward and one step back. They are referring to the medical implications of having a fragile, sick child who will often need help with breathing and feeding for months and is at the mercy of infection.
Dr Richard J Shaw, an associate professor of child psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine authored a 2009 study which examined the psychological impact of prematurity on families. He outlines three distinct traumas that NICU parents face.
- An early delivery, which may be unexpected.
- Watching your infant child having traumatic medical procedures and witnessing other infants going through similar experiences.
- Getting serial bad news.
Quite often, parents ignore their own emotional trauma to deal with the medical trauma facing their tiny baby.
Today is Wear Green For Premmies day. It aims to celebrate and commemorate those babies born too soon, to support their parents, to raise awareness for prematurity and to raise funds for NICU hospitals. Great things can come in tiny packages. Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stevie Wonder are all the result of premature birth and all have had a decisive influence on society. My own daughter, now four years old, is only just on the charts for weight and below the 25th percentile for height, but her life saved by the doctors and nurses in the NICU is very much cherished.
You can support the families of premature babies by wearing green today, and/or you can donate to the L’il Aussie Prems Foundation and several NICU hospitals by clicking here.
We’d love to hear your story if you’ve had a premmie baby, in the comments section below…