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Preemie parents knew all about 'social distancing' well before COVID-19

After months of watching our son struggle to breathe in the NICU, we lived in constant fear that one of us would bring home an illness that would land him back in the hospital on a ventilator.

dad and baby in NICU coronavirus

With schools closing, events being canceled and new information about the coronavirus circulating through news and social media, it's only natural for parents to feel anxious about protecting their children from this unfamiliar disease. But for parents of premature babies and other medically fragile children, isolation and "social distancing" is all too familiar.

When our son was born at 23-weeks gestation, my husband and I were thrust into a medical world that taught us more than we ever wanted to know about germs and the human body. But when we were discharged from the NICU four months later, we found one of the challenges of caring for our baby at home was educating the people around us about his vulnerability to illness.

The preemie journey doesn't end when the baby comes home.

It's easy to assume a preemie discharged from the NICU is now a healthy full-term baby, but that's not the case at all. In reality, NICU discharge means the baby can now be cared for at home, but this care often includes many of the trappings of hospital life.

Our son came home with oxygen tanks, a nasal cannula, and a pulse oximeter (a machine to monitor the levels of oxygen in his blood), as well as breathing treatments and five medications. We had a nurse come to our home every day to help with his care and monitor his health. It was December—right in the middle of cold and flu season—so we were also under strict orders to keep our son out of crowds, limit visitors and maintain many of the same hygiene and disinfecting practices we'd had to follow in the NICU.

After months of watching our son struggle to breathe in the NICU, we lived in constant fear that one of us would bring home an illness that would land him back in the hospital on a ventilator.

Preemie bodies don't work like the bodies of full-term babies. A very common piece of advice parents hear is, "You need to expose them to germs—that's how they build up their immune systems!" And while there is some truth in this advice, it's actually a lot more nuanced than that.

Preemies start at a disadvantage in terms of immunity because they miss out on some—or in our case, all—of the third trimester of pregnancy, which is when a mother passes her antibodies to her unborn child. There's also a misconception that premature babies are simply "finishing their gestation outside the womb," but in actuality, a baby's development proceeds very differently after they are born. So their organs are likely not functioning the same way they would be if the baby had been born on time.

Particularly, lung development is stunted by premature birth, and this can be exacerbated by ventilators which cause damage to delicate lung tissue. It can take years for children who were born prematurely to outgrow these shortcomings in immunity and lung development, depending on how early they were born.

Our doctors have told us to expect our 23-weeker to be vulnerable until he's at least 5 years old, and that's if we can protect him from dangerous respiratory illnesses. So even though he's 3 years old now, no longer our tiny baby, we've still been advised to keep him isolated while COVID-19 is spreading, because his body may not be strong enough to fight it off if he does get infected by it.

This isn't the life we imagined for our family.

When we first got pregnant, we pictured ourselves enjoying the fun parts of family life: visits from friends and family, outings with the baby strapped to our chest, family gatherings where our kiddo would join the already bustling crew of munchkins running around. But that's not exactly how it panned out for us.

We still feel the pain of that loss, even three years later. So while it may be disappointing for you when you can't meet the new baby in your family or friend's life or when they cancel plans and skip events because they're nervous about germs going around, please know—they're not overreacting and they're not excluding you because they don't love you. They're just trying to protect their child, and trust me, no one is sadder than the parents this is necessary.

And if you are the mother of a preemie or medically fragile child trying to navigate this scary new world where the coronavirus exists—you are not alone. Millions of Americans are with you, virtually, at home, too.

My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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