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 dallied for a few days before calling my doctor, thinking that the leaking amniotic fluid 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 never expected that I’d be having a premature baby. I’d planned my pregnancy and educated myself accordingly, reading the baby books and taking the requisite childbirth class at the hospital where I planned to deliver. Rarely did I come across any information about the “what ifs” of premature delivery.
Quite the opposite, most books stressed that first-time moms typically go past their due dates. And so, with a dash of naivety, I entered my third trimester assuming the same would hold true for me. Instead, my delivery taught me the first and potentially most crucial lesson of parenting: expect the unexpected.
What I wish I’d known about having a premature baby
1. It can happen to anyone
I was a healthy 32-year-old when I delivered my son. I had no genetic history of preterm delivery—my mother birthed 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 I’d have a premature delivery.
During my childbirth class at the hospital, I asked the nurse who taught our group at what point I should pack my hospital bag. “I’d start packing at 36 weeks,” she told me. It never entered my mind that this would be too late. After I had my son, I shared my experience with pregnant friends giving them a gentle warning that birth can happen anytime, not to be married to a due 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 process afterward was that my preterm delivery was not my fault. I did everything I could to carry a healthy pregnancy. Opening ourselves to motherhood also opens us to the possibility that things can and will sometimes go wrong.
2. It’s a shocking experience
“You’re not leaving here without a baby,” the nurse in triage told me after confirming that I was leaking amniotic fluid. This seemed unreal to me. Less than an hour earlier, I was at work. My baby shower gifts sat piled in my living room. I didn’t have a hospital bag packed and never bought diapers.
“The baby’s coming today,” I told my husband when he arrived, tears sliding down my cheeks. Though I said these words, I still felt in denial. I’d refused to believe my water was leaking all week long. Even driving to the hospital, I assumed I’d be checked and sent home. I wasn’t ready for the baby.
Shock is a natural reaction to premature delivery, especially as a first-time mom focused on a due date. I remember arriving home with my son and seeing my work boots where I’d left them next to the front door. It seemed unreal that my life could change so dramatically in a few short days. I leaned on my village. My sisters stocked our fridge, washed the baby clothes and organized the nursery. My cousin sent me shipments of preemie diapers.
I gave myself grace during the early postpartum weeks to adjust to my new, time-warped reality and cope with the shock. My baby may have arrived too soon, but that didn’t mean I had to process this change alone.
3. It’s not easier giving birth full term
My son was 6 pounds, 11 ounces when he was born. Both my husband and I come from families with big babies. If I had carried him full term, my baby would have easily been larger than 9 pounds. “Good thing he came early, at that size!” numerous people told me upon hearing his weight. “I’m sure that was a lot easier.”
Is it easier to birth a smaller baby? Usually. But that does not mean that giving birth prematurely is the better option. Preterm birth comes with a whole host of worries and stressors that most full-term parents don’t have to grapple with. Aside from the shock of the experience, there is worry about the immediate and long-term health of the baby and the implications for future pregnancies. Moms who want to breastfeed preterm babies are encouraged to “triple feed.” That is nurse, pump, feed the pumped colostrum or milk, clean the pump parts and repeat every two to three hours. It’s stressful and grueling.
Smaller babies might be easier to get through the birth canal, but there’s more at stake if they lose weight in those early days. Premature babies also have a harder time processing bilirubin, so they’re at a higher risk for jaundice. Even if a preterm baby is big, like my son, there’s the worry that his lungs may not be fully developed. Pregnancy and birth can come with many challenges—including birthing a large baby—but giving birth to a preterm infant is often one of the most daunting scenarios a new mom may face.
4. Medical professionals are prepared
Preterm birth is shocking and it is stressful. But take a deep breath—the medical community prepares for these scenarios. Although we have a ways to go to improve maternal mortality rates in the US (particularly for indigenous women and women of color), in the grand scheme of history, this is not a terrible time and place to give birth. Medical interventions exist for a reason and they help with these scenarios.
There’s Pitocin to induce labor after a preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM). There’s Terbutaline to stop or delay labor. There are steroids to facilitate a baby’s lung development. There are incubators, feeding tubes and amazing NICU doctors and nurses ready to care for a premature infant. These people are there to help you and your baby. A NICU nurse stationed herself in my hospital room during delivery, ready to whisk my son away if need be. It’s always important to advocate for yourself and your baby, but rest easy knowing there are tried and true protocols for these scenarios.
5. It will be OK
I was lucky that my baby was deemed a late preterm infant, the best possible scenario. Everyone’s story is different, and there are hard truths and sad or complicated stories that come with prematurity. But in the vast majority of cases, it will be OK.
Having an early baby was a scary way to start my journey into motherhood, but I (we, actually) made it through. Just a few months into my son’s first year, I stopped considering his milestones from the vantage of his “adjusted age.” He was on target with his peers and continued to progress. Now, my preemie baby is a large and rather rambunctious toddler. The trauma of his birth day is a thing of the past. It’s all OK. There’s a bright future for both of us together.
I wish I could go back to the moment I cried in that hospital bed and told my husband, “The baby is coming today.” I wish I could show that version of me the blonde, curly-haired toddler in the train pajamas. I wish she could see the sweet, clever boy my baby has become and understand that though premature birth is a part of his story—a part of our story—it’s not all of it, and it doesn’t define his life. If I could, I would tell that mama to take a deep breath. This is only the beginning.