By Jenn Carney:

It seems appropriate that we celebrate Prematurity Awareness Day on November 17, less than a week before Thanksgiving. As the mother of a premature infant, I am extremely thankful to all of the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other medical professionals who made it possible for us to bring our second son home 28 days after his early birth.

Prematurity is defined by the length of the baby’s gestation. Any birth that happens before 37 weeks is considered preterm, or premature. In the US, one of every eight babies is born prematurely. For most moms, this means prematurity will not be a problem. But for moms like Dr. Allison Hill and me, prematurity became an unexpected reality weeks before we were anticipating the arrival of our sons.

My son was born at 32 weeks, weighing in at just over 3 pounds. Up until 31 weeks, the pregnancy had been normal. I had no reason to expect anything different – my previous pregnancy had been normal, with my first son arriving at full-term via planned c-section, due to breech presentation.

But pregnancy isn’t always predictable and plans can change quickly. When Dr. Hill developed preeclampsia at 29 weeks, bed rest and constant monitoring replaced her plans to work up until delivery. For me, my plans changed when undiagnosed preeclampsia rapidly progressed to eclampsia – a condition characterized by high blood pressure and seizures. The condition is life-threatening to both the mother and the infant – and when it develops before an infant is full-term, it often necessitates an early delivery.

My son’s early delivery left both of us in intensive care units. In our case, my son had to be transferred to another hospital with a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). As I recovered in a small suburban Los Angeles hospital, my son was settled into the NICU of a hospital 15 miles down the highway. My husband divided his time between me and the as-yet unnamed infant. My mother-in-law flew in to help care for our 4 year old at home. I focused on recovering so that I could be released and reunited with my premature newborn. He needed a name. He needed a mom.

The NICU is not an easy environment to navigate. Most mothers who walk into a NICU to visit their own child will be walking into the NICU for the first time. But even a familiarity with the NICU can do little to make it a comfortable place for a new mother.

Dr. Hill’s experience of walking into the NICU for the first time to visit her premature son rings true: “Even though I’ve been in the NICU a thousand times, nothing could prepare me for seeing my own child there. Luke was on a respirator, hooked up to multiple monitors, and had IVs in his belly button and on his scalp. He was so skinny and red.”

Many resources exist to help moms and dads cope with the so-called NICU rollercoaster. Most hospitals provide patient support staff in the form of chaplains, social workers, and support groups. The March of Dimes offers information and an online community (Share Your Story) where moms can post comments, ask questions, and get support from other preemie moms. The Preeclampsia Foundation (www.preeclampsia.org) also offers a community forum specifically geared toward parents of preemies.

Thankfully, most babies are born full term with few, if any, complications. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell which babies will be born early. This is why it is important for moms to be aware of the signs and symptoms of preterm labor, preeclampsia, and the other possible causes of prematurity.

It is impossible to prepare yourself completely for dealing with a premature birth. Fortunately, prematurity is just the beginning of your baby’s life. It is not ideal, but most premature infants not only survive but thrive despite their rocky starts. My son, like Dr. Hill’s, is a healthy, happy boy now. He may have hit some of his milestones later than other kids his age, but he just started kindergarten and is every bit as active and rambunctious as any other 6 year old.