Sometimes, a baby is born too soon. A pregnancy should last till 37 completed weeks. This does not always happen. A baby born too soon may also be too small. Of course, such a baby is fragile, but he is also a precious little gift, to be loved fiercely, and cared for gently. He thrives with careful nurture. Caring for him can be a joyous experience with the right support. The secret is the love and dedication of parents and health workers.
Causes of prematurity
Premature births may be caused by many factors related to the pregnant woman. Some of these are illnesses, infections, poor nutrition, anaemia, inadequate antenatal care, short interval between pregnancies, previous premature births, pregnancy complications and drug misuse. Sometimes, they just happen in the absence of any risk factors.
How to care for your preterm baby
Typically, your preterm baby will spend sometime in hospital until feeding, breathing and temperature regulation are no longer problems. He also needs to be gaining weight consistently before going home. While your baby is still in hospital, visit frequently. When you visit, express milk for feeds, feed your baby yourself if permitted, sing to and hold your baby. This helps you to bond early. Your partner needs to visit too. This will help him to support you adequately when your baby goes home.
Protect your baby from infections
One of the archenemies of a preterm baby is infections. Preterm babies get infected by breathing in germs, germs getting into their blood through their very thin skin, or by feeding on inappropriate and contaminated foods. Therefore your hygiene and that of your baby is very important. Wash your hands or sanitize them before handling your delicate baby. As much as possible, visitors should be limited, especially those with colds, coughs or other illnesses. When your baby becomes unwell, take him to hospital or talk to his doctor immediately.
Protect your baby from dehydration and cold
Premature babies lose a lot of water through their very thin skin into the environment. It takes a while for them to master how to coordinate sucking and swallowing while breathing at the same time. So they feed poorly on their own. Hence they can get dehydrated easily. Dress the skin of your tiny baby liberally with a good barrier cream like petroleum jelly or shea butter. This will reduce loos of water from his body.
Also, a baby who is too small will not be able to keep himself warm. In a cold environment, he just gets colder and colder. Cold body temperatures do not support activities like breathing, digestion and the beating of the heart, which are important to life. To keep baby at the right temperature, not too warm or too cold, you need to practise Kangaroo Mother Care. You also need to dress your baby in warm clothes when the weather is cold.
Feed your baby with the best
Premature babies need a lot of food. They have a lot of growing to do. They need strength to fight infections. Breastmilk is best for your preterm baby. Since he may not have the energy to suck enough breastmilk and become full before getting tired, top up with expressed breast milk. If breastmilk is not available, you can feed preterm formula as well, but breast is best. Feeding must be regular. Sometimes, these babies are too small or too weak to cry when hungry, so crying will not be a good indicator of hunger. You need to monitor your baby’s weight to ensure that he is blooming right.
Bath time issues
Clean your preterm baby no more than once a day with mild soap. Do not mould his head. There is no need to stretch his arms and legs. Make bath time as short as possible, so that your baby does not get cold.
Let your baby breathe, and grow
All babies have normal pauses in breathing. These should not last longer than 20 seconds, and baby’s colour should not change during these pauses. If you realise that your preterm baby is not making breathing movements, stimulate him by gently rubbing his head or back. If this pause in breathing persists, you need to call the ambulance immediately. Then start CPR.
Lullabies, smiles, kisses and loving touches are all tonic for growing your little gift. Also respect his sleep time.
What about you, Mummy?
A tiny baby needs a lot of attention, but you should also get your share of love. Having a preterm baby can be traumatizing. You may be filled with self-doubt and guilt. Rest assured- you are a great mum. Get enough rest so you can heal quickly and nurse your little one to strength.
Your baby is special
A preterm baby is just as special as a term baby. In fact, he is even more special. Being at risk of infections, dehydration, cold bodily temperatures and poor growth among others means that he needs extra care. He is yours to have, love and grow. Strength to you both.