When I was 34 weeks pregnant, my water broke. I was a first time mom and didn’t know it was my water. So I waited a few days before calling my doctor, thinking the amniotic fluid leak was just third trimester discharge. When it became clear that what I was experiencing was outside the realm of normal, I left work and went to labor and delivery to be checked.
Four days later, I came home with a baby. My son was born at just over 35 weeks.
I did not expect to have a premature baby. I had planned my pregnancy and educated myself accordingly, reading baby books and taking the required childbirth course at the hospital where I planned to give birth. Rarely have I come across information about the “what ifs” of premature labor.
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On the contrary, most books point out that first-time mothers will usually past their deadlines. And so, with a hint of naivety, I went into my third trimester assuming it would be the same for me. Instead, my childbirth taught me the first and potentially most crucial lesson of parenthood: expect the unexpected.
What I wish I had known about having a premature baby
1. It can happen to anyone
I was a healthy 32 year old woman when I gave birth to my son. I had no genetic history of preterm birth – my mother gave birth to me four days after her due date. I exercised, had normal blood pressure, and ate as well as my morning sickness would allow. There was no reason for me to suspect that I would have a premature delivery.
During my birthing class at the hospital, I asked the nurse who was teaching our group when I should get my hospital bag ready. “I would start packing at 36 weeks,” she told me. It never occurred to me that it would be too late. After having my son, I shared my experience with pregnant friends, gently warning them that childbirth can happen at any time, that one should not marry on a planned date and that even healthy pregnancies don’t always go as planned.
I wanted my friends to listen to their bodies instead of ignoring unusual symptoms like I did when my water broke. One thing I needed to deal with afterwards was that my premature labor was not my fault. I did everything to have a healthy pregnancy. Opening up to motherhood also opens us up to the possibility that things can and will sometimes go wrong.
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2. It’s a shocking experience
“You’re not leaving here without a baby,” the triage nurse told me after confirming that I was leaking amniotic fluid. It seemed unreal to me. Less than an hour earlier, I was at work. My baby shower presents were piled up in my living room. I didn’t have a hospital bag and never bought diapers.
“The baby is coming today,” I told my husband when he arrived, tears streaming down my cheeks. Although I said those words, I still felt in denial. I had refused to believe that my water was leaking all week. Even while driving to the hospital, I assumed that I would be checked and sent home. I wasn’t ready for the baby.
Shock is a natural reaction to premature labor, especially as a first-time mother focused on a due date. I remember arriving home with my son and seeing my work boots where I left them by the front door. It seemed unreal that my life could change so drastically in a few days. I relied on my village. My sisters stocked our fridge, washed baby clothes and organized the nursery. My cousin sent me shipments of premature diapers.
I gave myself the grace during the first few weeks postpartum to adjust to my new time-warped reality and deal with the shock. My baby may have arrived too soon, but that didn’t mean I had to deal with this change alone.
Related: What No One Tells You About Having Premature Babies
3. It’s not easier to give birth at term
My son weighed 6 pounds and 11 ounces when he was born. My husband and I come from families with big babies. If I had carried it to term, my baby would have easily weighed over 9 pounds. “Good thing he came early, at this size!” many people have told me upon hearing its weight. “I’m sure it was much easier.”
Is it easier to give birth to a smaller baby? Usually. But that doesn’t mean giving birth prematurely is the best option. Premature birth comes with a host of worries and stressors that most full-term parents don’t have to deal with. Along with the shock of the experience, there are worries about the immediate and long-term health of the baby and the implications for future pregnancies. Moms who want to breastfeed premature babies are encouraged to “triple feed”. That is, breastfeed, pump, give colostrum or pumped milk, clean pump parts and repeat every two to three hours. It’s stressful and exhausting.
It may be easier to get smaller babies through the birth canal, but the stakes are higher if they lose weight at first. Premature babies also have a harder time processing bilirubin, so they are at higher risk for jaundice. Even if a premature baby is big, like my son, there is concern that his lungs are not fully developed. Pregnancy and childbirth can come with many challenges, including delivering a big baby, but giving birth to a premature baby is often one of the most daunting scenarios a new mom can face.
4. Healthcare professionals are prepared
Premature birth is shocking and that is stressful. But take a deep breath, the medical community is preparing for these scenarios. While we still have some way to go to improve maternal mortality rates in the United States (especially for Indigenous women and women of color), in the grand scheme of history, this is not a time and a terrible place to give birth. Medical interventions exist for a reason and they help with these scenarios.
There is Pitocin to induce labor after premature rupture of membranes (RPMP). There is Terbutaline to stop or delay labor. There are steroids to help develop a baby’s lungs. There are incubators, feeding tubes and amazing NICU doctors and nurses ready to care for a premature baby. These people are there to help you and your baby. A NICU nurse stationed herself in my hospital room during the delivery, ready to take my son if needed. It’s always important to advocate for yourself and your baby, but take comfort in knowing that there are proven protocols for these scenarios.
Related: Bringing baby home from NICU? NICU nurse shares what you need to know
5. Everything will be fine
I was lucky that my baby was considered a late preterm baby, the best possible scenario. Everyone’s story is different, and there are hard truths and sad or convoluted stories that come with prematurity. But in the vast majority of cases, it’ll be OK.
Having a baby early was a scary way to start my journey to motherhood, but I (we, in fact) succeeded. Just a few months into my son’s first year, I stopped looking at his milestones from the perspective of his “adjusted age.” He was on the right path with his peers and continued to progress. Now my premature baby is a tall and rather rambunctious toddler. The trauma of his birth is a thing of the past. Everything is OK. There is a bright future for both of us together.
I wish I could go back to when I cried in that hospital bed and said to my husband, “The baby is coming today.” I wish I could show this version of me, the blond, curly-haired toddler in train pajamas. I wish she could see the sweet, intelligent boy my baby has become and understand that even though premature birth is part of his story – part of our story – it is not everything of it, and it does not define his life. If I could, I would tell this mom to take a deep breath. This is only the beginning.