ATLANTA – About one out of every eight babies in this country is born too soon. Many of those newborns will spend their first months of life in an intensive care unit. For their parents, the experience can be overwhelming.
Becoming first-time parents was scary for Robert and Michelle Williamson. Their baby, Michelle, was born by emergency caesarean section three months early. She weighed 15 ounces and could fit in the palm of her dad’s hand.
“When she first came out, it just really touched my heart. Almost brought me to tears, when I first saw her, that small,” said Robert Williamson.
Since then, Michelle has been in Grady Memorial Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, gradually learning to breathe without a ventilator, to nurse and to grow. She has tripled her weight.
“It’s amazing to see her from 15 ounces up until 3 pounds and two ounces. You know that transformation, because she was so small, and now she’s really big,” said Michelle Williamson.
Emory/Grady neonatologist Dr. Bill Sexson says medicine has gotten much better at helping the tiniest preemies like Michelle survive.
“But I think the real issue to talk to folks about is that oftentimes, even if you’re to survive, there’s going to be some residual, there’s going to be some problem with development,” said Sexson.
Premature babies are at higher risk of lung problems, developmental delays, and other complications that Sexson says concern him.
“Because they’re the things you may not know about for a year, or two years, five years,” Sexson said.
A major focus of both Grady and the March of Dimes is preventing pre-term births. Sexson says they’re working with mothers who’ve had one very premature baby and are at high-risk of having another to delay getting pregnant again for at least a year and a half, giving them time to get as healthy as possible.
“Then you’ve optimized your chance for that next baby to be normal and not a preemie,” said Sexson.
And Dr. Sexson encourages parents to look beyond the NICU, imagining their babies at 2, or 4, or 6, because he says no matter how small, or sick a preemie is in the NICU, “the best predictor of how a child will do long-term is how well they’re nurtured, and educated, cared for at home.”
If all goes well, Michelle Williamson will leave the NICU in about week. Michelle and Robert can’t wait to take her home.
“And read her little stories, and change her diapers like we do here, and be able to feed her and hold her,” Michelle Williamson said.
March of Dimes is working to get a better idea of what causes preterm deliveries and what can be done to stop them. The organization is working with Georgia and other states to dramatically reduce the number of preterm births by 2014.
To read more about preterm births, and get pregnancy tips, visit www.marchofdimes.com.