Brittanie Flores’ first birth experience was picture perfect. Her son, Roman, was almost nine pounds at birth. Two years later, pregnant with her second son, she went into early labor at 32 weeks and said she knew this time would be drastically different.
After two weeks on bed rest, her son, Oliver, was born on Feb. 13, well before his scheduled March 20 scheduled induction. Born at 34 weeks, Oliver was 5 pounds 10 ounces and spent 13 days in NICU.
She shared her experience with me while cuddling Oliver, now a healthy five-month old.
How was having a preemie different than having a full term baby?
It was terrifying. He didn’t cry when he was born. We’re sitting there praying all this medicine I had been on had worked. He came out and we were so afraid he was going to have health issues.
With Roman, my first son, I got to hold him. They brought him to me and we sat together. But with Oliver, I didn’t even hear him cry until he was out of the room and they were already taking him to NICU.
When did you get to go see him for the first time?
Later that night. I had him early in the afternoon. He was in a heated bed at first and later moved to a closed bed.
He was at the very end of the NICU hallway. I walked passed all these tiny babies. It felt like I was walking down a Grey’s Anatomy hallway. It didn’t feel real. I walked in there and bawled my eyes out. It was so scary. You have no control over your tiny baby. You think, “They have to want their mom. Where’s my mom?”
What was the most difficult part of having a baby born premature?
I was in the hospital a few days and visited Oliver. It didn’t hit me hard until I got discharged from the hospital. Then it was like, “You can’t hold him.” and “He’s not yours.” On the drive home I was bawling on the highway. I remember telling my mom, “This is all my fault. I did this.” Because I had been put on bed rest, and I felt like I failed it.
The more senior NICU nurses were very encouraging. They’d say, “This is your baby.” They encouraged us to handle this teeny baby and help during touch times until he was stable enough to hold.
When did you get to hold Oliver for the first time?
He was eight days old. It was hard, of course. It helped that I had been put on bed rest at 32 weeks, and I could mentally prepare myself that he might be early.
I waited until he was four or five days old to ask to hold him. I didn’t really know I needed to ask until I talked to some parents in surrounding rooms. They told me, “You have to ask.” So when I asked for the first time and was told no – that was the moment when I felt like, “We’re leaving!” you know? “We’re out of here.”
Holding your baby for the first time is always euphoric. It was with my first one. Holding Oliver after not being able to was maybe even more of a connection than with my first baby. We did a lot of skin-to-skin time. I only got to hold him for 20 minutes for the first few times because he was not holding his body temperature well.
What got you through the tough times?
I pumped for him. I started a freezer stash for him. Bringing him clothes and doing his laundry. We would bring our own diaper bag and use diapers out of our stash to change him. I think that helped a lot to do real parent things.
We also decided to do a NICU photo shoot. I will forever thank God that he put that in my head that I needed that for whatever reason. We waited until I was able to hold him. I think they are the best pictures I’ve ever had in my whole life. You will never get those kind of pictures on your phone. And I wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be a horrible experience. I will cherish those pictures forever.
How was it relating to friends and family during your NICU stay?
At times, even now, it can feel like Oliver is disconnected from the family in a way because he was away in the beginning. They got to hold Roman, my first baby, from the get go. So I felt like Oliver was distant from them. They called and checked on him and me. But you can’t say, “He’s horrible. I’m horrible.” It was super hard for me. Sometimes you want to scream about something so good or so bad. There’s so much more you want to say, but not everyone understands the important milestones and medical jargon. So you say “We’re good. He’s doing better than he was yesterday.”
Your oldest son was two years old when you had Oliver. How did you balance having a two year old at home and a preemie in NICU?
Because he was two years old, he didn’t understand much. That was my positive in the whole situation. When I wasn’t at the hospital I got to spend quality time with him. That was mine and my mom’s biggest thing was to make sure I spent all the time I could with Roman and make sure he felt special because we were gone so much.
That was a big mom challenge for me was dividing my time because I have a child at home who understands our schedule and knows that things aren’t right. Like “Why is mom gone all the time? Why is dad gone? Why am I constantly going to my grandma’s house?” We were taking him to babysitter after babysitter. Meanwhile, the new mom in me was like “My tiny baby is in the hospital, and I need to be there.” So there were positives and hard times in balancing that.
Was there anything anyone did for you that helped make the NICU stay easier?
Yes! We had endless amounts of food baskets, freezer meals, gift cards for fast food restaurants, gas cards. We can’t thank our parents enough for helping with childcare for Roman. Even if you can only afford a $5 Starbucks gift card, driving through for a coffee will probably be the best thing that will happen to that mom all day.
My Nana came over and cleaned my whole apartment for me. I came home one day and she had done all the laundry, made our bed and washed the sheets. I could come home and just sit there and relax. It was the best thing ever. My aunt and her labor and delivery nurse friends brought me a basket of easy snacks like packets of crackers, so I could throw them in my bag of pump supplies.
One of the biggest thing someone can do is offer to go TO the hospital and take lunch or meet in the cafeteria for a quick coffee. I know I wanted to stay as close to my baby as much as possible, so it was nice to walk just downstairs and have a quick bite to eat or coffee with a friend and chat between touch times.
What would you tell a mom who has a preemie baby in NICU right now?
It does get better. You will get through it. Find a friend or someone who had a preemie to talk to. Find a blog to read to know and see the answers to the questions that you have. Find other people, even if it is the parents next door to your NICU room, to talk to about the little details that friends and family can’t understand. Don’t just sit in your room. Reach out to people around you to talk about all your medical questions. Also, get out of the hospital. Get a change of scenery when you can. Lastly, don’t compare. Even term babies are going to hit milestones at different times. So don’t get on social media and compare your newborn with other newborns.
How is Oliver today?
He’s just turned five months old. Most people would never know he was early if they saw him in a carrier. But he’s a little behind. He’s three months old adjusted age so he’s just rolling over. He’s just mastering tummy time and holding his head up really well.
Nursing is something that has been important to Oliver and I while living “life after NICU.” It is definitely something that is a special bond with mother and child, but knowing that there was a point in time of his life that I could not even touch him without asking, and now I’m feeding and growing this happy, healthy, beautiful baby all on my own! Wow, that’s amazing stuff! I’m in awe every single day that I taught us both to do this and we are reaching a new goal with every feed.
Feeding him for the first time was probably the most emotional part of the entire experience for me, I truly felt so relieved that I could do this. That WE could do this. If you’re able to get from NICU to nursing, good job mama, because it is no easy task.
I always say preemie moms deserve a merit badge. What merit badges do you think you have earned?
Things you go through in the NICU are things you won’t forget moving forward in life, so I would say getting over each “hump” is a huge success and milestone for your baby and/or yourself.
Pumping to keep up with feeds is extremely important and honestly, a lot of freaking work! It’s important to recognize that. Also, knowing how all the machines read and what all of the medical words are that are flying at you while you’re standing in the room listening to your nurses and doctors surround your baby telling you the next steps and plans. That can be tough to hear what tomorrow may or may not bring to the table.