The arrival of a baby is a beautiful miracle. Every baby. And when a baby is born too soon or too sick, a spotlight shines a little brighter on both the power and the fragility of the miracle of life.
When a baby is born healthy, wonder comes from every gurgle, every windy smile and sleepy twitch. We learn the hunger cry, the poonami face, the witching hour tricks that calm a tiny, over-tired mind. The awe of watching a growing little life is wonderful and celebrated with joy (along with a touch of sleep-deprived hysteria!).
When a baby is born prematurely, the joy and the wonder manifest in very different ways, and need to be celebrated all the same. Every breath is a battle that shows the will to live of the human spirit. Awe comes from the fact that a tiny person can be sustained by just 1ml of milk, or a syringe of man-made Total Parenteral Nutrition delivered directly to the heart. We develop ninja-like skills in navigating nappy changes and bed baths through two arm sized incubator holes, and surprise even ourselves that the top and tail bowls never get mixed up (and there's NEVER any double-dipping!). The first hold is a mix of the most joyous and heart-breaking emotions, as we finally feel like this tiny little person may actually be ours.
The first time we're able to dress our little one feels like the most long-awaited, momentous day (this was at eight weeks for our little miracle). Weigh-in days fill ours tummies with butterflies, and every extra ml of feed feels like a step closer to home. Beeps and sats-levels fill our dreams, and we learn to spot a 'real brady' from a 'poor trace' in a heartbeat (excuse the pun).
Days spent staring at a tiny rising and falling chest never feel long enough. But life outside moves at the speed of light, and commitments to other children and daily life drag us away with the pain and guilt of abandonment. Yet we feel more blessed than we could ever imagine, because we're witnessing a miracle every day, and how many of us really get that privilege?
Superheroes have one common trait: a superpower that they use for good. For the smallest superheroes, that superpower is their fight for life - and, hell, do they fight for it! So when I hear the words 'From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow' there's no question in my mind that life is a miracle. Whatever you believe, it's hard to deny that miracles can happen when you've witnessed the smallest human go up against life with every breath - and win.
The reason I'm writing this is simply to say that even the most bumpy rollercoaster journey with a premature baby is something to be celebrated. If you find yourself wondering how to 'congratulate' the parent of a premature baby, I'd say that you can't get it wrong as long as they know you care.
Here's a short guide on the best gifts I think you can give to help a parent through the experience:
1. If clothes aren't appropriate, and teddies will dwarf the tiny little baby, send a simple card. Sometimes the written word is the most powerful gift you can give a person. I've cried buckets simply reading the words 'I'm thinking of you'.
2. Pop round with a lovely home cooked meal. If they aren't up to sharing it with you, they will appreciate one less meal to think about that week. And the thoughtful gesture will feed their wellbeing more than the food!
3. Offer to take their older children out for the day to ease the pressure for a few hours. Siblings often have to play second fiddle when a baby spends and extended period in hospital, and parents are riddled with guilt about prioritising one child over another. Knowing Fun Aunty Susan is taking them out to gorge on sugar for a day will mean the world to them!
4. Take an extended lunch and meet mum at the hospital to break up the day. Take her out to lunch and treat her to a glass of wine (if she wants it!) to bring back a little bit of normality (mummy can pump and dump the next milk feed as she'll probably have a stock pile of milk in the hospital freezer!).
5. If you are looking to do something a little grander, book a night's stay in a nice hotel for the parents, but remember to ensure it's close the the hospital. They can have a night 'off' knowing they are close by if anything happens, and it will give them a welcome break from the monotony of daily life they leave their precious little one to come home to.
6. Give a lovely diary and a box of their favourite chocolates so that they can think of you as they document their rollercoaster journey. It's cathartic for the parents and it shows you really are thinking about them. The fancy baby gifts can wait until their little one is safely home.
7. Offer to drop them at the hospital a couple of times. It can be so frustrating missing half an hour of visiting while you trawl the hospital car park for a space. Also, the daily cost of parking is another stress that people rarely think about. That simple gesture will show them you're there for them in more ways than you know.
8. Most importantly, just be there with an ear and a sense of understanding throughout their journey and you'll give the best gift you can ever imagine.