How to care for a premature baby

By Rosalind Stefanac on April 19, 2013
Premature babies (those born before 37 weeks) often start their lives with serious medical challenges resulting in weeks (or months!) of ongoing care in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Preemie parents often find themselves counting down the days to when they will swap hospital quarters for the comforts of home and some long-awaited bonding time.

For many preemies, special medical needs will persist well after discharge – and some cognitive issues may continue into the school years as well. Fortunately, with the right care and network in place, parents can ensure their preemies still experience a robust childhood.

Develop an action plan

Kirsten Meyer and Ian Silver, from Kingston, Ont., say the sheer volume of care that persisted after they brought their daughter home from the NICU shocked them. Natasha (born at 26 weeks) was diagnosed with chronic lung disease and needed ongoing respiratory care at home. There were up to four appointments a week with the ophthalmologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, audio/verbal therapist and pediatrician. Kirsten says a good scheduling system was essential. “We also had a treatment meeting with her care providers to figure out common goals.”

Heather Rambukkana, of Whitby, Ont., says it’s also important to be your preemie’s advocate. “When you have so many professionals following your child, you can get contradictory information. I know my son best and if I don’t get the answer that I think is right for us, I seek a second opinion.”

Be an anti-germ crusader

“We would prefer to be isolated and hurt a few feelings than put our daughter at risk,” says Ian, who insists all visitors to the house have a flu shot and use a hand sanitizer at the front door. Dr. Paige Church, director of the Neonatal Follow Up Clinic at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, agrees. “Keeping your babies well will give them strength and more opportunity for learning. Readmission to the hospital is just time that is wasted and could be life-threatening.”

Join a network

Dr. Church says feeling anxious about your preemie is normal, so don’t hide it. “I worry more about the parents who don’t say anything,” she says. “Share your concerns with your healthcare providers and others so they can help you work through it.”

Kirsten keeps in touch with parents of preemies she met at the hospital and others on Facebook. She says, “We still see our old friends but it seems more relaxed when you’re with parents of other preemies. If Natasha’s throwing up because of reflux, they won’t be fazed.”

Find some ‘me’ time

There’s no guilt in wanting some personal time away from your baby. In fact, many parents of preemies say it helps them cope with the difficult days. Heather says, “One of my stress releasers is going for a run. I make that time for myself every day to get out and clear my head no matter what – even if it means he naps in the running stroller.”

Concerns for premature babies

RSV: Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common cause of upper respiratory infections in infants and children, but for a preemie it’s a major health concern. RSV is considered the number one cause of sickness and re-hospitalization among premature infants. Symptoms include difficult or rapid breathing, sleep apnea and cyanosis (a bluish tint to the skin). For those considered high risk – like micropreemies born at 28 weeks or less – a monthly RSV vaccine during fall and winter is recommended.

Acid reflux: All babies spit up, but for preemies with underdeveloped core muscles or chronic lung disease, it can cause issues with feeding and weight gain. While most pre-term children will outgrow the condition within the first year, others with severe symptoms (such as projectile vomiting or spit-up that is yellow or green), may require medication.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May/June 2013.

By Rosalind Stefanac| April 19, 2013

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