What it’s like to have a baby seven weeks early

Gill and Lee.

Lots of people have babies, I owned one for a while before she grew into a two year old. Ours almost came two months early, my wife went into full-blown pre-term labour and then it just stopped in the hospital and went full term. Easy.

But when Gillian went into labour, there was no holding Lee back. He weighed four pounds, and was born seven weeks early. She had to go home to her other kid while the baby gathered strength, heading back to the hospital for feedings.

But everything is OK now. Here’s what happened.

How early was your baby? Were you prepared?
My second child, Lee, was born seven weeks early, at 33 weeks gestation, on June 12. My entire pregnancy to that point was uncomplicated so his early arrival came as a complete surprise. We were so unprepared. We didn’t have a name, the baby’s room was still our spare room, and the dresser still had to be ordered.
Basically, here’s what happened. My water broke early and I was admitted to the hospital in the hopes that bed rest and ongoing monitoring by the nurses and doctors would help me keep the baby inside longer. It also meant the doctors could give me two doses of a steroid shot that would help the baby’s lungs mature faster, and give me a round of antibiotics that would also help the baby and keep any potential infection at bay.
It was a nerve wracking experience. Everything had been fine and then I had a few days where I felt a bit tired, a bit off, but in the latter stages of pregnancy that’s fairly normal. In addition this was my second pregnancy and my first one went well. My first son Tristan was born two weeks early, but that’s nothing. Two weeks either side of your due date causes no worries usually. So, waking up in a puddle and wondering if your water broke or if you’ve just peed yourself (it can happen when you’ve got a baby kicking your bladder!) takes you back.
We headed to the hospital that Tuesday morning but the triage doctor said my water hadn’t broken but I should take it easy for a few days. I didn’t believe him, I knew my water had broken, though and figured sitting at home for the day wouldn’t do much harm. I should have told the doctor that I should walk a lap of the maternity ward and then they should check if they still believed that my water hadn’t broken!
I continued to leak fluid for the rest of the day every time I moved or walked around so we returned to the hospital later that evening once my son was settled with Grandma as a babysitter. The doctor in triage at this time agreed that my water had broken.

Baby in the ICU.

What sort of medical issues does a premature baby present?
Although Hollywood movies shows that once a pregnant woman’s water breaks she immediately goes into heavy labour, that’s not the case at all. In the latter stages of pregnancy having lots of fluid in the womb isn’t that important. But once your water breaks there is concern about infection, hence they give you antibiotics.
But your water breaking usually means you’ll go into labour within 24 to 48 hours, or within next 7 days. But in some cases you won’t and you can carry your baby to term, though the doctors usually induce you after 35 weeks gestation, when the baby is better prepared to be born.
So I was admitted to the hospital and they said I’d stay there on bedrest until the baby was born, whether that was in a day or two or several weeks. So I hunkered down with my iPhone (my most favourite piece of tech now!) and my computer, watched the first season of Glee on DVD while I fretted about all the things I hadn’t finished up at work, and that there was still a double bed and a broken dresser in the baby’s room, and that we still hadn’t picked out a name.
The doctors monitored the baby’s heart rate twice a day and did an ultrasound to see that everything was fine and to estimate the baby’s weight. The doctors also went over with me what would happen to the baby when he was born and what to be prepared for. I knew there would be quite a team in the delivery room and that after I briefly held the baby he’d be wisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit to a waiting incubator. They also prepared us for any potential medical issues.
The biggest one is respiratory problems, as that’s the last part of the baby to mature. They warned us that the baby might need some help breathing, depending on whether he started to breathe by himself once he was born or not. They also let us know that the baby would have an IV for a few days and would be fed by a tube through his nose, unable to even attempt breastfeeding for a week or more due to his gestational age. Babies don’t gain the suck-and-swallow reflex until they’re 34 or 35 weeks gestation. His size wasn’t the biggest concern since the ultrasound estimated his weight at about 4 lbs 8 ounces, which is a decent size. Babies born weighing 2 pounds or less can survive and be healthy.
I eventually went into labour on my own on the Saturday afternoon and the baby was born after about three hours of serious labour at 9:36 p.m. I got to hold him for a moment before he was taken away to the NICU, and we went there as soon as we could so we could see him and touch him. We didn’t get to hold him at that time, though, and that was the hardest part. With my first son, we got to hold him soon after he was born, and he was in a bassinet in my room within an hour.
We were breastfeeding that night and wham! we were full on parents changing diapers and rocking a little bundle all swaddled in blankets. And we took him home after two days.
This time, we were in my room without a baby, knowing that this baby won’t be coming home with us for at least a few weeks. And while he came out hollering, breathing on his own and had no apparent health issues – other than being a little small and early — there in the back of our minds was the concern that some health issue could crop up later on.
So, that began our odyssey with the NICU.
We would go to him for each feeding (every three hours 9, 12, 3, 6 etc.) and learn how to care for him, with the nurses showing us how to change his tiny diaper, to wipe his eyes with gauze and sterile water, how to hold his feed (an open syringe with breastmilk or formula in it). And we’d get to hold him in our arms or on our chest for awhile as the food drained into his tummy. Initially, the IV made it hard to hold him without feeling that you were going to rip it out.
And we needed the nurses’ help to put him back in his incubator due to the IV line and the three cords attached to him to monitor his heart rate, breathing rate, and blood oxygen levels. His skin was translucent at this point and he was long and skinny. But he was active, tolerating his food well (nurse-speak for easily digesting the food he was given) and could holler with the best.
The nurses and doctors said he was doing really well and that they had no big concerns with him. His job was to eat, sleep, poop and gain weight.
The IV was taken out within a few days as he had gradually reached his maximum food intake, according to his birth weight (something like 33 ccs/ml every 3 hours). We then held him for every feed we were there for, as it was our biggest chance for contact. But we got into a routine and it became my new day job: I’d drop off my eldest (my three-and-a-half year old son) at daycare and take the subway to St. Mike’s hospital for the noon feeding. I’d then stay until the 6 p.m. feeding. Sometimes my son and husband would come for the 6 p.m. feeding or I’d go home and my husband would come alone for the 9 p.m. feeding.
It’s a routine we expected once the baby was born, but in our minds it didn’t include an incubator, a 24-hr team of nurses and a drive to see him.

Gill at home.

What’s it like to have a baby in the hospital, but having to go home and deal with the rest of your life in the meantime?
The good part, is that you’ve had a baby but you’re getting a chance to sleep, other than the fact you wake up in the middle of the night to pump to keep your milk supply up and so you can bring the milk with you the next time you go to the hospital.
The bad part is, you’ve got the rest of your life still going on and a son to entertain, but now your day is spent at the hospital with a little baby that doesn’t come home with you. I ate out lots since I wasn’t at home, I couldn’t get much done, because I wasn’t at home, and you know soon you’re going to have a demanding newborn in your house without the team of nurses beside you.
You also feel guilty about not being there all the time. My husband works early in the morning so I had to be home to take care of my other son. It would have been very difficult to cut down my time with him in order to get to the hospital earlier in the day.
You know your little baby is getting the greatest care, but you want to always be the one doing that and it’s just not possible when your baby is in the NICU. You had to accept that you couldn’t be there 24/7 because you’d be exhausted, and you had to know that the nurses were doing a great job for you.
The other hard thing is that you’re not in control of what happens next to your little baby. Decisions are being made all the time and you’re not always part of them. Little decisions, like when the IV is taken out, when he moves out of the incubator, when he comes home, aren’t made by you. The doctors and nurses make these decisions based on milestones your baby has reached.
When the baby is getting enough liquid via food, then the IV comes out. When the baby’s temperature has remained stable, then they can move to a cot/bassinet. And when your baby is getting full feeds via breast or bottle feeding, then they’ll soon come home.
But, you don’t know this when you get into this kind of a situation, only when you’re there. You had to learn to ask a lot of questions of the nurses, and occasionally hunt down a doctor to pester them with questions too. 
I was very lucky in this situation. My story is basic, my water broke early and my baby was born a few days later. It was uncomplicated. Other women whose children were in the NICU didn’t have it so lucky. Several had pre-eclampsia, where their blood pressure goes through the roof, they’re at risk of a stroke and the baby is born via C-section within a half hour. Then some of these women ended up in the ICU themselves with complications from ranging hemorrhaging to ongoing blood pressure issues.
Some didn’t see their babies for days because they were so sick themselves. Then it takes longer for their milk to come in and the whole process gets set back. Then they’ve got the pressure of having to be there as much as they can for their baby, meanwhile they’re still recovering themselves. It’s tough for them.

 What advice do you have for anyone who suddenly finds themselves in the same situation?
Ask lots of questions, realize you can’t always be right there and that you’ll get your chance to be a 24/7 mom in due time. And you have to go with your gut, and realize that you baby will grow, all it takes is time and lots of food.

What were you most looking forward to when you get him home?
We eventually got to take Lee home, nearly one month after he was born. For the first few days I hunkered down at home and then started to venture out with him as I would with any baby. I cleaned out Shoppers Drug Mart of their hand sanitizer and I bought disinfecting wipes, but beyond washing my hands more I didn’t change a lot about how I handled him. I just made sure I was there to give him food whenever he needed it.
His arrival home also meant his big brother got to hold him for the first time (he was so excited) and it let us be a family and hang out together, whether that was at home, at the park or with our extended family. We finally got to show him off!  My husband also got to hold on to him more and we got to share duties more. And while the nurses and moms at the NICU were great, it was fantastic to be home, to relax and be together rather than surrounded by nurses, doctors and the incessant beeping of those infernal monitors. 
Lee has been home for nearly a month now, and he’s up to 7 lbs. He’s still tiny, but he’s adding the fat that makes him look like a little baby and not a scrunched up old man. He wakes me up nearly every two hours, but I know it’s food that he needs. He loves being held all the time, and all the grandmas and aunts and uncles gladly oblige.


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