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You and your Child : Being a Parent (part 3) - Your Premature Baby

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Your Premature Baby

If your baby was born prematurely, she may have spent time in a neonatal intensive care unit. Such a challenging start is bound to impact the early years of parenting, but it is important to try to come to terms with and handle your feelings.

“I can reassure you that most premature babies catch up on their development during the toddler years.”

Your baby was born early, so she will reach her first birthday at a slightly earlier stage of development than babies who were born at 40 weeks. For example, if she was born six weeks prematurely, she will be only 101/2 months in development terms on the day you light that first birthday candle. A week can be a very long time in toddler terms and it can be helpful to remember to subtract those early birth weeks from estimated ages and stages of development and to focus instead on enjoying and celebrating each of your child’s small achievements.

Your child’s developmental milestones will be the same as other children’s, although they may occur at a slightly later calendar date. And the good news is that most children who are born prematurely will have “caught up” by the time they are 2–3 years old and will benefit from your encouragement to enjoy toddlerhood to the fullest.

Natural anxieties

It is normal to feel anxious if your baby was born prematurely. You will have probably dealt with a whole range of challenges during the first twelve months: you may have been unable to breast-feed, and may not have been free to hold or touch your baby as you would have liked; she may have had breathing difficulties or been ill. Even though you have been told that she will “catch up,” you may wonder whether she will lead a “normal” life.

During the early months you will have had to handle a whole range of difficult emotions: feeling robbed of a natural birth and precious time with your newborn; constant worries about your baby’s health; and fears of loss and death.

Letting go

Try not to let anxiety connected with the past curtail your child’s enjoyment of life. Keep safety in mind, but remember that toddlers will only learn through exploration.

Talk about your fears

Your thoughts and feelings about the past will influence your current feelings and actions toward your toddler, and will therefore affect the way she relates to you. It is normal to feel so grateful that your child has survived that you feel unable to reprimand or manage her behavior as she grows older.

It can be helpful to talk about your experiences, so that you are conscious of how they are influencing the present day. Keeping in contact with other parents of premature babies can be helpful, since they will be encountering similar issues. Specific guidance will be available from your pediatrician or you can consult a specialized organization .

Attachment

Some parents will find that the impact of seeing their baby so small and vulnerable during the first weeks of life will make them cautious about holding or touching their baby, even when she is older and stronger. This in turn may mean that your baby does not become used to being touched or held.

Physical closeness and cuddling are very important elements in a baby’s development, and a lovely way to help reduce her anxiety, making her feel safe, and nurtured. If cuddles have been absent up until now, begin to give your toddler hugs and gentle massage—but take it slowly. Every baby has different needs—she will soon show you what she enjoys and what she doesn’t, so follow her lead.

As your child grows

Health concerns may have dominated the first twelve months, but now your toddler is getting older and stronger you can start to let her play and explore. Focusing on enjoying silliness and playtime, instead of on health issues, can help reduce anxiety, too.

Try to remind yourself that even though your child may seem vulnerable and smaller than average during her early years, she will need the same clear and loving behavior boundaries, and eating and sleeping routines, that apply to all children. This period of transition may be a challenge for you and your toddler. Other parents will help you gain perspective concerning “normal” progress and problems.

Only 15 percent of mothers who have a premature baby are likely to have another baby prematurely.

Real life

My daughter Rachel was just 3.7 lbs when she was born prematurely. The first year of Rachel’s life was full of mixed feelings and anxiety. Every time she cried or refused the bottle I worried that she was about to die. I was paranoid about cleanliness and warmth and found it really hard to accept that she was genuinely well and healthy. I was so terrified of losing her that I found it hard to let myself love her or show affection in case she was snatched away. Looking back, I feel as if I lost the first 12 months of her life, which makes me feel very sad and all the more determined to make up for lost time. Now, at almost two years old, Rachel is showing immense strength of character and determination. She definitely rules the household—and we feel so grateful to have her, although because of my experience I am still quite fearful of having another child.

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