The incidence of premature births in the United States has been growing over the past five years. But thanks to medical advances, a preemie delivered as early as 28 weeks and weighing at least two pounds, three ounces has a very high chance of survival and little chance of injury. However, bringing a preemie home involves some special adjustments:
Get ready. When it’s time to leave the hospital, your pediatrician will explain how to care for your preemie at home — including how to know if he’s eating properly, getting enough sleep, and gaining enough weight. She’ll show you how to administer medications and use any special equipment your baby might need, such as an apnea monitor or supplemental oxygen tank.
Make every ride safe. All babies, including preemies, must be secured in a car-safety seat in the backseat to leave the hospital in a car. Choose a seat that’s approved for use at weights under five pounds (Babytalk‘s picks: Chicco’s KeyFit Infant Seat
Because of a preemie’s potential breathing problems, it’s recommended that parents limit the time their baby is in a car seat to an hour or so.
Breastfeed, if you can. While providing breast milk for a preemie can be challenging, it’s one of the most effective things you can do to promote your baby’s health and development. Let your doctor know if you want to nurse. Even if your baby is unable to nurse at first (newborn preemies often lack the strength required to suckle a breast), you can begin expressing your milk right after delivery so it can be given to him — either by tube or by bottle — as soon as he’s able to have it. Continue to pump at regular intervals, about six to eight times a day, to encourage milk production.
Adjust your thinking. Infant-development charts can be frustrating for parents of preemies, whose tiny babies seem to hit milestones later than other infants born at the same time. But if your 3-month-old baby was delivered, say, two months early, he would be only 1 month old now if he’d been born on his due date. Because chronological age is so deceptive when assessing a preemie, your doctor will assign your baby a “gestational age,” calculated according to his original due date. A preemie’s size and development correspond more closely to this gestational age than to chronological age.
Celebrate. With all the uncertainty that can accompany an early birth, some parents of preemies may feel they never had a chance to celebrate their new child. Take photos in the hospital and at home. Keep a journal to record her progress. And as soon as you feel up to it, let others know about the big arrival. (Just make sure all visitors wash their hands before touching the baby. Anyone with an upper respiratory infection shouldn’t get close to your little one.)
For more information on preemies, visit the “Parenting Corner” on the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics at aap.org