“It’s a boy! And oh boy is he a wee mite!” were the first words I remember hearing after Q was born. Then an intense, eerie silence for a minute as I held my breath waiting for a cry. And waited. No one told me what was happening, but I found out later that they were bagging my little baby, helping him to breathe before they whisked him off to the NICU to stabilize him. They quickly hung the baby over my head, then just as quickly he was gone, zoomed off in the arms of a nurse, while the doctors shouted “GO Dad GO!” indicating that my husband should follow the team headed for the NICU, and fast. The cry that I waited for never happened, at least not in the operating room where he was born.
It would be after a few hours in the recovery room that I finally got to see him, my bed wheeled up next to the incubator where he lay sleeping, hooked up to IV’s and monitors, with an NG tube in his nose and taped down. I didn’t get to hold him or touch him, or even get close enough to him to really see more than his little face that first day.
My baby boy was born weighing only 4 lbs 11 ozs, less than an average sized ham. He was tiny, weak from exhaustion and very thin. He was in a special incubator meant to help regulate everything from his body temperature to his oxygen. He had a tube that ran from his nose to his tummy so that he could be fed, and IV’s to replenish and maintain his blood sugars and administer medication. He looked like a doll and I had never seen a person that small in my life. I wasn’t told much of this the day he was born, as I was heavily medicated and doped up from the emergency c-section. I was only told that he was small enough to be classified as premature, how much he weighed and that he was stable. My husband told me that when he put his hand into the incubator when he was allowed to touch the baby, that the baby gripped his finger so hard, he knew that he was strong and a fighter, and from that moment he knew that everything would be fine.
The next day, probably almost 18 hours after he was born, I was wheeled down to the NICU. I was instructed on the proper hand and arm procedure washing, scrubbing up to the elbow for a minimum of 2 minutes with hot water and harsh soap as soon as we entered the NICU. I was then shown to the little cutained “room” where my baby boy was staying. They took me in and pretty much right away, starting rattling off names, numbers, medications, possible issues and things to be aware of when you have a baby that size. They told me that because he was so small, he was very weak and tired and explained how they had fed him the previous night. They told me so much information in such a short amount of time that I became overwhelmed. I started to cry, terribly afraid that we might lose this baby who was already so loved. There was this perfect boy, sleeping in this clear plastic box, hooked up to IV’s and monitors and with a tube in his nose and taped to the side of his face. The first time I got to touch my baby was through the holes in the side of the incubator.
I felt a tremendous amount of guilt, that my body had failed him, and was unable to provide him with the one thing that it was supposed to, he had not been getting enough nutrients and was basically starving. How could this have happened, I wondered? How could I have failed him so badly? It was my fault, and I felt as though there was a 1000 pounds of weight on my shoulders. If he died, it would be my fault. How do you not blame yourself? I still, to this day, carry guilt around his birth. I had one job, and could not even manage that. How did I deserve to be a mother to this baby when I couldn’t even protect him when he was still inside my body?
I was terrified to hold him. I was scared that I would break him, or pull out a tube or catch on a monitor wire. I didn’t know how to hold him, I had never even seen a baby that small. What if I hurt him? The NICU nurses were rock stars, and they showed me how to gently make sure all the leads and tubes were out of the way when we held him. I could only hold one hand, because the other was splinted up with an IV in it. They showed me how to weigh him and where all of the supplies were kept. The nurses had already given him his first bath, but they showed me how to do that too. It was overwhelming, but they never made me feel like I was weird or a bad mother. They were reassuring and helpful and made me feel like I could do this. Soon, I felt like a pro, weighing him a few times a day to see if he was gaining or losing and recording it for the nurses.
Soon, I hardly saw the tubes or wires, just my beautiful little boy who liked a bit like a baby monkey, and, as he improved, he was upgraded from the full giraffe incubator to a less “full-service” one, if you will. One by one, the different monitors and wires began to disappear as he got stronger. The beeping of the monitors no longer scared me and I learned what I was looking at, be it his heart rate, O2 saturation level, or blood pressure. They were just part of the tools used to help him get bigger and stronger.
Since he came early, we didn’t have a name picked out for him, and this weighed really heavily on my heart for the first couple of days, especially as I lay in my hospital bed at night. I knew we had to give him a name, because. I was terrified that he might slip away and not have a name, and that was a beyond horrible thought. I stressed about it, because although I had been reassured that he was stable, I was terrified that the unspeakable might happen. Thankfully we had a list of our top 10 boys names, and over the next couple of days I tossed them around in my head. I knew we needed a strong name for our little fighter and a couple of the names on my list kept popping into my head. One morning, my husband said “I think we should name him Q”. And it was done, we told the nurses, and the little name plate on his bed was changed from “Baby boy F” to “Q”. It felt like a weight had been lifted, because now and forever more, this boy had a name. It was going to be ok.
We struggled mightily with breastfeeding, a trend that continued for months after we got home. I talk about that in more detail here but needless to say, it was difficult. As a less than 5 lb’er, he needed to eat almost constantly, around the clock for the first while. While he was in the NICU, and after I had been discharged from the hospital, I fell into a routine. I would be up by 6:30 or 7:00am, and would call the NICU for an update from the night before. I always got scared though, when no one answered the phone, wondering if there was an emergency, and if it was my baby, or someone else’s precious one. They would let me know if he had been fed yet, and I would pump, then bring that in to the hospital. I would be there for the next feeding, then pump again, and take a rest in the lounge or run some errands. This would go on every 2 hrs until the nurses would kick me out around 11pm, to go home and sleep and trust my boy to them. There was no post c-section rest, there couldn’t be. It killed me to be away from him for so long, and the day I was discharged from the hospital without him nearly broke my heart. Walking out of that hospital, carrying the baby seat with no baby in it was awful. I didn’t know how long he would be there, or when the day would come when we could walk out with him in our arms. Even though the team assured me that he was getting stronger and stronger every day, I still feared the worst.
The NICU nurses were amazing, though. They got to know my boy, his likes and dislikes, and they tried as hard as they could to respect those preferences. They coloured a Winnie the Pooh picture and taped it to his bed, and found him a quilt to cover the top of his incubator. In fact, we were given a beautiful handmade quilt to take home when we were discharged, made by volunteers for just that reason. They became enamoured by my little dude with the big blue eyes, and told me that they were both happy and sad when we left. They answered my questions patiently and sensitively, and never once made me feel bad. I wish that they could see the boy that he has turned in to now.
We weren’t allowed to leave the hospital together as a family until Q weighed over 5 lbs consistently, which, in talking to other preemie parents, seems to be fairly standard. After we were discharged, we had weekly doctor visits for the first couple of months, and then every two weeks for a few months after that. We found out later that a placental infection may have been the cause of his early arrival and small size, but we will never know for sure. I was, however, advised that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to have any more children, something that initially devastated me, but that I have come to terms with for the most part.
I never thought I would have a preemie. My pregnancy was fairly easy, and I was monitored regularly up until around 35 weeks. I had ultrasounds to check the growth and development of the baby and they were all normal. We just didn’t know. As the doctors told me, sometimes it just happens and there is nothing you can do to prevent it.
Today, Q is a happy, healthy 7 year old. You would never know to look at him that he had such a rough beginning, but I will never forget. Being a preemie parent changed me, changed me to the core. I still struggle with guilt occasionally, and anger that I wasn’t able to give him the nurturing and safe environment that I was meant to provide. Mostly, though, I am thankful. Thankful that he doesn’t have any long term health problems as a result of his birth size. Thankful that although we won’t be having any more children as a result of this, we got a really great one on our first try. Q has always been on the small side, however, around the age of 5, he really started to catch up. Thankful that we all made it through this experience in one piece, stronger really.
Writing these words has been difficult for me. It’s taken me a week and many tears to be able to recount and tell some of this stuff. No one wants to admit that they failed their child before they were even born. No one knew that I was terrified of losing my boy pretty much every second of every day that he was in the NICU. I only recently told my mom that I needed for him to have a name because I was worried that he might die without one. These are words I haven’t ever really shared with anyone, some maybe not even with my husband. Why now then? I want women to know that if they are feeling this way they are not alone. In my heart I know that it was not my fault that he was born tiny, but it is hard to let go of the guilt. Being a preemie parent has changed me. It has changed the way I approach parenting and life. It has made me grateful every second of every day for the amazing boy that I have, and reminds me why we have only one. Although each of us has our own story, we all share a common bond through that story.
Did you have a preemie or a NICU baby? Were you able to take away any positives from your experience?