The Bittersweet Side of Becoming a Preemie Parent

preemie baby in an incubator

I have held off writing this for a quite a while for a couple of reasons really. 1 I felt that I had covered quite a bit on prematurity and sometimes it really can sound like you are always being quite negative (without meaning to but until you’ve been in these shoes it can be difficult to understand where it is all coming from) and 2 because it is still painful to think about certain aspects and to reflect on how those moments made me feel.

However, September is NICU awareness month and William is now 9 months old with his first birthday in sight so I felt the time was right to bring up the bittersweet side of being a preemie parent.

I need to state that the sweet bit is and always will be him. He is my shining star and every day I look at him I am reminded of how amazing he is. The bitter part is all that followed that made that pregnancy so much harder than my first and his arrival so very different to what it should have been.

The First Hold

When you find out you’re pregnant and plan for the birth you imagine scenes of your other half cutting the cord, your baby being placed on you for those first important cuddles, letting them snuffle around for their first taste of milk and having photos that you will treasure forever (even if you do look the worst you ever have done in your life!) I was lucky in the sense that he was placed on me for a brief moment (and I mean brief!) but then that was it. He was taken over to a small team of people from NICU who started to help with his breathing and then he was gone. Taken. Off to his incubator, off to have tubes and breathing apparatus attached to him, leaving me to recover and wonder when I would get to see him again.


I will never have those first photos of skin to skin contact straight after birth, I won’t have one of myself and hubby smiling exhaustedly at the camera, I will never have one of him on the scales because none of it could happen. 

birth story- baby in NICU incubator


The Congratulations

A baby has been born so you are bound to be congratulated… but as a preemie parent, this can feel very odd and almost undeserving. Each time somebody messaged, text, said to my face congratulations, I felt like telling them it wasn’t welcomed. God, that makes me sound so ungrateful but at the time, all I could see was a baby who wasn’t yet meant to be here, stuck inside an incubator and being left behind in the hospital. Congratulations felt like it was for those babies who got held immediately, who got to snuggle into their Mother’s skin, who got to go home with the rest of the family.

The Cards

This follows on from the last point but coming home from the hospital each day and looking at congratulations cards almost drove me crazy during those harder times. I did contemplate taking them down which maybe would have been better for my mental health? 

The Presents

I honestly do not want to sound like an ungrateful cow, I really don’t but when I received gifts of clothing that was sized much bigger (like 6-9 months) all that went through my head was what’s the point? He won’t be in these until late next year at this rate! When you give birth to a tiny baby and even the tiny baby clothes are far too big it can be a big reminder of what you won’t be expecting from your baby when someone says ‘well these will fit in the summer’. No, no they won’t because my baby is going to be smaller for a while and those summer clothes will probably fit when the snow hits! It wasn’t that I didn’t want baby presents, of course, we all want those when there’s a new arrival, it was just all too much at that emotional time. Everyone really was so sweet, it was me that was bitter.

premature baby in cot in hospital


First Nappy, Bath, Clothing…

I never got to put that first nappy on my baby and I never got to change his first one either. I never asked the nurses in NICU if they had bathed him in those three weeks. I didn’t want to know. They never mentioned it and I never noticed that he was fresher one day compared to the previous day but I like to think that his first birth was the one he had at home… it probably wasn’t but I can’t process losing another first. His first clothes were far too big and not what I had planned for him to wear, I also didn’t get to put those on him. I know I get to do it for the rest of his childhood but those sentimental moments really stick, don’t they?

Not Reaching that Really Big Stage in Pregnancy

This one hadn’t ever really crossed my mind until after we came home. I obviously felt a bit odd having given birth 8 weeks too early and I was still subconsciously holding my ‘bump’  throughout the day but it wasn’t until I saw a heavily pregnant woman that I suddenly felt as though that part of my pregnancy journey had been stolen away from me. I loved the end of pregnancy with Jake. That humongous bump that you can’t see around, when you can’t get your own socks on, when a kick is so strong it stops you in your tracks and best of all, when the baby is just having a little party in there and you spend your evenings laying on the sofa watching the entertainment. I really wanted to experience that again.

Jake kissing my baby bump, black and white photo


Maternity Clothes

I had bought some lovely clothes this time around and, as shallow as it sounds, I cannot believe I didn’t get to wear some of them! I was looking forward to showing off my bigger bump, to going swimming regularly, exercising more in my pregnancy activewear but it wasn’t to be. When I finally brought myself to tidy them away again it broke my heart. It was another reminder of what had happened and that he was here too soon. My third trimester had been cut short.

Seeing Babies the Same Age

This can be a huge realisation moment when you see how your baby should be. When I bumped into a Mum who had a baby younger than William yet looked about 3 months older I was left quite surprised. I had been living in my little bubble, watching him grow and develop (although having already had Jake I knew William was behind where he would have been if he’d been born at the right time). I was proud that he was doing so well but the reality hit me when I realised how small, how immobile, how unresponsive he still actually was. He wasn’t yet smiling, he wasn’t strong, he wasn’t moving about and he certainly wasn’t covered in cute baby fat. After this I knew I couldn’t face attending a baby group until he was a bit bigger because I couldn’t face watching other babies developing at the usual rate whilst mine stayed a newborn for even longer.

The Due Date

Reaching your baby’s due date is a strange feeling. It was bizarre to be looking at him at 8 weeks old but looking newborn (or less) still with no fat, still with that preemie look and thinking ‘this is the day you were meant to arrive‘. It makes you so grateful for all that the hospital did for him, happy that he was home and safe and doing well but it also made me think how things should have been.

William looking very small on his due date wearing a baby gro and laying on a knitted blanket

There are probably so many more of these bittersweet moments but I think in these 9 months I have blocked quite a bit out in order to move on and to enjoy my beautiful baby boy. I know from being in a support group that these feelings do linger for some and that they can go on to further affect them. No matter how happy we all are that our babies are safe and well, the way they came into the world and the fight they had to go through (whether that was for a week or a year) will always stay with us because nobody wants to see their baby in that situation. 

Writing this down is also part of my healing process and I need to put to bed some of those issues that sometimes still creep up on me. I can’t change any of it. It is what it is. I am extremely lucky that he needed very little care from NICU and could come home so quickly. I am lucky that he has almost caught up with his development and that he has no known lasting effect from being born too early.

Life is full of bittersweet moments, isn’t it? I am lucky that the sweet now overly outweighs the bitter.

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2 thoughts on “The Bittersweet Side of Becoming a Preemie Parent

  1. Hi Emma, thanks for this. I agree with many of your comments but one which *for me* was very different was that I had no congratulations wishes AT ALL. Not one. My 26-weeker arrived completely out of the blue and within 32 minutes of my waters breaking, so I can understand the initial shock among friends and family, but to never receive any congratulations at all felt like nobody cared or wanted to acknowledge him. I KNOW that wasn’t the case and of course I understand that people were hesitant over a congratulations message when he was sooooo tiny and poorly to begin with. Even so, for me that’s a bitterness that hasn’t entirely left, and our son turned 20 years old this month! I am glad to hear your boy is doing well now, too.

  2. I understand these emotions are real as my daughter gave birth to a 26 week 1#14oz baby boy with IUGR due to her preeclampsia. I can say that as a new grandmother and mom of 3 girls, things not how we planned her birth to be. We had a girls trip planned for spring break to Waco in March and the day she went in the hospital in January we canceled the trip. She gave birth emergency C-section 12 days later.
    All that being said, you have to make new plans and new goals and embrace the process and all the set backs and challenges your family is facing with grace and love.
    My grandson is now 37 wks and weighs 5.5 pounds and is almost the size of a baby in the womb at 37 weeks.
    There are better days ahead and as a grandmother I am seeing my grandson improve by leaps and bounds! Less tubes , less wires, fewer tests and pokes and sticks from the lab and almost to the point of coming home!
    As a mother I also have seen my daughter very sick even to the point of death and knowing that we could lose her and the baby was more than we could bare. She had a traumatic birth experience and had PTSD from all she went through along with PPD. I can say that today she is doing much better and though she has bad days she is having better days and even greater days ahead!
    He will be coming home soon and they will settle in their home as a first time family. It will take a dedicated family to help them get through the transition of having their baby in the home and not the hospital. The doctors and nurses will not be within the hallways of their room. It will take a network of people to make this transition happen for their new baby.
    There will be doctors appointments and immunizations , eye test and hearing tests, even some medical procedures after discharge.
    Though your birth experience did not look like everyone else’s, that doesn’t mean that you and your baby and spouse aren’t true warriors! Our God did not fail!

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