November 17th is “World Prematurity Day” — and it has inspired many calls-to-action to the policy-makers, the health innovators, and the professionals who are in a position to improve maternal outcomes. Premature birth is the most common cause of infant death in the US, and the rates are rising— in 2017, 9.93% of births were preterm, the highest in three years.
But while the calls-to-action are necessary, we can’t lose sight of the people who are most directly impacted by these rates: mothers themselves. Navigating parenthood with a premature baby (or preemie) can be a lonely and anxious experience — and it can be a struggle to feel a sense of normalcy when reality is so different than the expectation.
Here are a few proven tips on finding your own solid ground in those early days with a preemie:
Just Breathe. First and foremost, don’t forget to breathe. There will be times when all the unknowns of having a baby in the NICU will feel entirely overwhelming. If you notice yourself spinning and headed into a downward spiral of worry and anxiety, take a moment to notice if you are taking short shallow breaths. If so, first pause, then place your hands on your belly and take ten slow deep breaths, paying special attention to feeling your abdomen rise on the in-breath and fall on the out-breath. This is the perfect first step to reset, reframe, and reorient to what is actually happening with you and your baby in that very moment. Deep abdominal breathing will help you stay centered as you learn to navigate your day-to-day with a preemie.
Listen to Success Stories.For mothers of preemies, hearing from women who have walked the path of mothering a preemie can be insightful and reassuring. If you have friends or family members who have parented a preemie, don’t hesitate to reach out to them and listen to their stories. Despite how lonely and isolating the NICU experience can feel, you are not alone. And if you don’t know anyone personally who has parented a preemie, ask your nurse to tell you stories of those babies who have “graduated” from the NICU. These stories can help you remain calm and keep a positive perspective, two things that are key to staying in the moment and enjoying every last second you get to spend with your newborn baby.
Kangaroo Care. In the NICU, bonding with your baby may not look like the picture perfect babe in arms, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t foster a close attachment. First of all, it’s important to understand how your nervous system and your infant’s nervous system are intertwined. All babies are born with immature and underdeveloped nervous systems and depend on parents and caregivers to regulate their emotions for the first couple of years of life. This energetic exchange, nervous system to nervous system, body to body, is the main way we communicate with babies. Kangaroo care is one way you can bond with your baby and instill a secure sense of attachment. Kangaroo care is simple… hold your baby skin-to-skin on your chest for as many hours in the day as possible. (Before you try it out, be sure to speak to the nurse or your neonatologist about appropriate ways to bond with your baby, as every infant’s medical situation is different.)