My Maddie was born premature. She arrived into this world at only 32 weeks and 6 days, despite all the efforts to keep her in for longer.
Today is National Prematurity Awareness Day and I'd like to share her birth and NICU story.
For a couple of weeks I had been feeling weird. I had tightenings in my uterus but being a first time mama, I didn't think too much about it as I assumed they were normal braxton hicks. Because I was in between prenatal appointments I just figured I would ask my OB at the next checkup.
It was 2am and I couldn't sleep. I kept rolling over trying to get comfortable, and in one of those rolls my water broke. I remember waking Ken up almost in hysterics and him trying to convince me that it must not be my water, maybe I'd peed the bed? By that point I was in the bathroom as fluid gushed out of me. It was then that Ken, now fully awake, realized this wasn't normal. We rushed to the hospital and were registered and admitted to the Early Labour Unit. No one believed me when I insisted that my water had broken. It was at least an hour (if not more) before the test came back positive finally showing that yes, the fluid dripping out was in fact amniotic fluid. Because I had been waiting for a while the contractions were already coming on strong. At this point the OB gave us the spiel about medications to stop labour, about steroid injections to help the baby's lungs mature and about how the Neonatal team would come and talk with us about the possibilities that lay ahead. I was terrified. Everyone tried to reassure me: the medications would work, labour would be put off for at least a few days if not a few weeks, I would just have to be on bedrest...But deep down I knew she was coming and I braced myself for that. I remember feeling scared but at the same time sending all my prayers up to the heavens, hoping that at least one angel would come and watch over my sweet baby girl to make sure she was OK...that she would make it.
The hours trickled by. The contractions did stop and I was moved up to the High Risk Maternity Ward. Just as I had gotten settled into my room and was about to have a snack, the contractions began to increase in intensity. They were at the point were I could no longer talk through them, let alone breathe through them. The nurses rushed in as Ken insistently pressed the call button. They fumbled with their monitoring equipment, which only told them what my screams and moans already had. I was in full blown labour and nothing was stopping it now. An awkward OB resident with terrible bedside manner, finally checked my cervix and confirmed that I was 7cm dilated. Seven centimeters too dilated to be on the Maternity Ward. So I was rushed back down to the Birth Unit. There was a blur of people, voices, lights, equipment...all I remember clearly was holding my mom and Ken's hands and asking them to look me in the eyes and helping me focus on breathing. I was offered an epidural and I agreed. Looking back that was probably a mistake as I was much too deep in labour to sit still for it. The Anaesthesia resident had a terrible time getting it in, and finally after what seemed an eternity, it was done. She told me to lay down and that in about 20 minutes I would feel the relief. I couldn't wait.
As soon as I lay my head on the pillow I got the most intense urge to push. My nurse asked if I wanted to see her crowning in the mirror and I said yes, but I was so tired and blurry eyed that I only have a faint memory of seeing her little head, full of hair. In less than 15 minutes and 3 big pushes Maddie arrived into this world at 4:52pm.
She was quickly whisked away to the examination table and surrounded by members of the Neonatal team. After a few minutes I heard her cry. She was brought over to me and I got to hold her for far too short a time. She was taken to the NICU immediately. I sent Ken away to go be with her. It felt so wrong to have her be all alone, so far away from me when she had spent so many months inside me. I tried not to focus on that at the time, I still had the third stage of labour to get through. By that time the epidural had kicked in so I didn't feel any more contractions. When it was all over I was insistent on someone taking me to see my baby. But it was only after a meal, a shower and a shift change later that a nurse finally wheeled me down to see my daughter. Ken was there standing next to her incubator. I was overcome with emotion at seeing how small she was. Only 4lbs2oz. My tiny little baby.
Our stay in the NICU was ridden with highs and lows. There were those that were more supportive and others who made me cry. As two educated, involved parents we wanted to know EVERYTHING that was part of Maddie's care. Thankfully, Maddie had no serious health concerns. She was not intubated. She only needed an IV for nutrition and the UV lights for her jaundice. And besides being too tiny to go home, she was healthy. I wanted so much to hold her all the time as it felt natural and I had also read that it was beneficial for the preemie baby to be held as much as possible. But because of her jaundice she had to be in her incubator for most of the time. I also wanted to start breastfeeding her right away, but was discouraged from trying by most of the NICU staff. I completely understand why preemies tend to not be able to suck (they get tired and need their energy for other bodily functions like growing and breathing...), but it didn't make the instinct to want to do so go away. One of the things I really regret about our time in the NICU is that I was not more proactive about starting my breastfeeding relationship with Maddie. But this was not due to me not wanting to breastfeed, it was due to the lack of support and encouragement from the NICU staff. I was pumping like a crazy woman, every 3 hours 24/7, so at least I had pumped milk to give Maddie. However, they were giving it to her via a bottle with a nipple. I was so innocent and ignorant to the whole thing, that I didn't question this at all. Why couldn't I be the nipple she drank from? I know they had to give her measured amounts, but still, I am sure she would only have nursed until she was full or got tired.
I was so desperate to feel that bond that one day, when it was just me and her behind the curtain I latched her on and to my amazement she latched on perfectly. I let her suck for a few seconds and then because I was actually scared I would be harming her (I could kick myself now about this!!!) I unlatched her. I had been made to feel afraid that she was not ready to breastfeed and that doing so could harm her in some way. How ridiculous is that!? A baby is born with the most powerful, natural instinct to feed and there is nothing harmful about that. If I had persisted and told someone about how well she had latched maybe she could have started to breastfeed sooner than she did. But it wasn't until she was 10 days that finally her nurse (who to this day I am so grateful to!) asked me if I wanted to try to breastfeed. So we did and since that day she breastfed like a champ! She started growing so well that one day later she was out of the incubator and off all IVs and monitors; and a week later (after 18 days in the NICU) she was home. After being through all that we left the NICU grateful for the staff's help, but more grateful to have learned to always trust myself and my maternal instincts. They are there for a reason.
The day we brought her home was the first day I finally felt peaceful and the fear was gone. I could have her close all the time now. I would no longer have to leave her and wonder all night how she was doing. I would no longer have to pump, instead I could breastfeed her whenever she wanted.
I now entered the world of motherhood in a state of bliss and sheer gratefulness because I finally had my baby in my arms.
My words of wisdom on prematurity awareness are short and sweet: Do all you can to have a healthy pregnancy. Listen to your body. Trust your instincts.
My body was telling me something was happening, but I did not know enough to pay attention. I try not to think about the what-ifs, but perhaps if I had gone to the doctor sooner I would have been put on bedrest and maybe she would have stayed in utero longer. I just don't know. I am so blessed that my story has a happy ending, but the truth is that for many parents this is not the case. Prevention is key. And if my story can help a baby out there stay warm and safe inside mama, then I will be happy.