The Long Babyhood

One of the biggest misconceptions I find about preemies is that they’re like other babies, just smaller.

Preemies aren’t at all like full-term babies. Sometimes they come home on oxygen and heart monitors. They go to extra doctor’s visits and checkups. Preemies often have digestive problems—most of the ones I’ve known have had to take medicine for acid reflux, for example. The fear of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is real, and parents of preemies often have to keep them at home and out of public until their immune systems strengthen. With my son I felt that so many people didn’t understand how trying and difficult that six months was for us when we wanted to see people, live in the outside world, and show off our baby. But, when you have preemies, your first priority is to see that they get healthy.

Preemies are usually tiny for their age. I’ve worried about my son being picked on because he’s hardly ever played with anyone his own size. A pregnant woman at a consignment sale once asked me for advice on clothing sizes, and I had to laugh before I could answer her. I have no idea what “normal” babies wear. My babies wear newborn sizes until they are five or six months old! Heck, my son still wears 18-month-old t-shirts, and he’s nearly three!

Both my babies were four, five, six months old and trapped in bodies that didn’t move. My son didn’t roll over or sit up on a timeline that was even comparable with his adjusted age. He skipped crawling, and he didn’t walk until he was 17 months old—and he’d had physical therapy for nearly a year. You have to learn to alter your expectations to the reality of your child. It’s not fair to expect them to grow and develop as a full-term baby because they have had an abnormal entrance into the world. Growth and development varies so widely that your best bet is to challenge your child based on a realistic timeline, and I believe therapists are excellent at helping you set those goals.

Preemies don’t mind noise and light because that’s what they’ve known in the NICU. My daughter preferred to be awake at night, a fact we didn’t learn until her first night at home. Very kind people advised us to expose her to daylight and noise to help get her on schedule. The problem was that she slept best when it was noisy and bright because she was accustomed to a NICU environment. In fact, my son went through a horribly fussy period soon after he came home from the hospital. I attribute it to several things, but one of them was that he went from the bustling hospital environment to a boring, quiet home. I couldn’t possibly recreate what had become normal for him, and he really struggled to acclimate.

Preemies have been separated from their parents and cared for by an army of people. That fact really bothered me with J because I was supposed to be his mother, and every night I went home without him. No matter how hard you try to bond, it’s just not the same when you don’t spend every waking moment with your baby. One of the hardest moments in the NICU with my son was when I realized that his night primary nurse knew him better than me. When I reflect on the sadness I felt in that moment I still, three years later, want to ball my eyes out. My NICU babies didn’t care to be rocked, because they were hardly rocked in the NICU. It was easy for me to put them in their own beds with no singing, rocking, or breastfeeding at bedtime because I didn’t do any of that in the NICU. My son was so independent. He didn’t really need me for his first two years, just as long as someone was caring for him—or so it felt. I believe I was the very best mother I could have been, but I didn’t feel like we bonded until after his first year when he could interact with me.

One of the hardest differences—and also one of the most special—is that a preemie is a baby for a really long time. I didn’t sleep through the night for a single night for six months with my son. When we had my son’s first birthday party, he wasn’t able to eat cake, a seemingly trivial thing that made me really sad. He was barely eating baby food. He was wearing 6-month clothes and had only recently learned to sit. I remember thinking how weird it was to celebrate a first birthday for a child who really was still a baby.

My daughter is six months old, but she’s wearing 0-3 month clothes, she’s just now learning to roll over, and by most measures, she’s still a newborn. A few weeks ago, I took her out of the house to run an errand for the first time, and people stopped me to ask how old she was. I could tell they were a little shocked, because what brand-new mom has a pressing need to rush to Home Depot for a wreath holder with her newborn and a toddler in tow? They were even more shocked when I told them her age. This is a difference between my children—it took too much energy to explain it all to strangers with my son, but now that I have two preemies, I take pride in their unique journeys.

My babies are tiny and needy and adorable for a LONG TIME. I can’t relate to people saying that the first year goes by so fast. For me, it doesn’t at all. My babies take forever to do anything. But, there is also something magical about it. My best friend told me with my son that I was getting to preview him three and a half months before his due date. What a preview and not always a good one! But, one way to look at it is that you’re with your baby way before you should be, so you do get to witness them go from TEE-NINY to big kids.

That first year with a preemie can be so challenging, but isn’t that a fact of life? We all have moments that test our endurance and resolve that usually serve to make us more resilient. Now, when my son calls for Mama or when we lie in his bed and sing songs at bedtime or when he tells me he loves me “BIG!,” I treasure it because we have come a long way from me being a new mother with a tiny baby. My experience with my son also makes it easier with my daughter. I think I’m more patient about giving her the time she needs. I know she will be my baby for a really, really long time, but M is my last biological child. I see it as I get to savor this long babyhood.

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