BY JAMIE LOBER JUL 21, 2016
It is hard to imagine what a one pound baby looks like. According to Jennifer Simmons, community director of March of Dimes in Macon, “Four hundred babies are born each week in Georgia premature, and on average in the United States, one in eight babies is born premature.”
It is important to understand what it means to be premature. “Gestation is forty weeks. We consider a term baby to be thirty-eight weeks, so anything born in between the completion of the thirty-seven weeks is considered preterm,” educates Dr. Mitch Rodriguez, lead neonatal physician at Coliseum Hospital.
Premature birth can happen to anyone. Misti Tonn learned this on November 28, 2005 when Hayden was born at two pounds, fourteen ounces, and Walker was born at three pounds, two ounces. “All of my sonograms were great. I was gaining the right amount of weight, and everything was on target. At thirty weeks, I went into labor, and my water broke. My girls were ten weeks early,” shares Misti Tonn, mother to Hayden and Walker Tonn, the 2010 Bibb County Ambassadors for March of Dimes. Tonn kept a journal in which even the nurses contributed. “It is wonderful to be able to look back at it. To reflect how far the girls came is amazing,” says Tonn.
Premature birth can occur by:
•Premature rupture of membranes, a sack that keeps the baby in the womb
•Frequent uterine contractions
•Increase or change in discharge
•Lower abdominal or pelvic pressure
•Labor ensues, and there are poor methods to stop it
Risk Characteristics include:
•Diabetes or hypertension
•Previous preterm birth and/or multiple miscarriages
•Carrying more than one baby
•Infection during pregnancy
•Bleeding in second or third trimester
•Abnormal cervix or uterus
•Previous child with chromosomal disorder
•Little or no prenatal care
Sometimes there is no alternative to delivery. “There are certain maternal conditions, like preeclampsia, which is when the mother has hypertension and sometimes liver enzymes that go out of a normal range, which tend to get worse the longer the pregnancy goes on. At some point in time, the decision is made that it is in the best interest of both the mother and the baby to terminate the pregnancy and let the baby survive outside of the womb. Because if pregnancy continues, it can be harmful to the mother,” says Rodriguez.
Remember that it is not your fault. “I think a lot of parents first put some blame on themselves. As a mom, I was thinking of what I did, but this kind of thing just happens. At some point, you have to let that go and realize it happened, and you are going to move on. That is what we did,” says Tonn.
Take Preventative Action:
•Identify underlying health conditions
•Take action to prevent or control diabetes and high blood pressure
•Practice good dental hygiene
•Abstain from alcohol and tobacco use
•Maintain a healthy diet, and do not consume castor oil. Run herbs by your doctor before consuming them.
•Avoid activities which may lead to early labor, such as heavy lifting, overexertion, foot massages, nipple stimulation, getting overheated by way of outdoor activity, saunas, hot baths, etc.
•Do not gain or lose too much weight
•Consult your doctor before having sex
•Get folic acid
•Consider preconception care where you are counseled on pregnancy issues
•Go to recommended prenatal visits
A neonatologist is the primary caregiver for premature babies. “My counterpart in the obstetrical field is a perinatologist, whose role is to take care of the high-risk pregnancies or those who are at very high risk of delivering premature as a result of either infant or fetal conditions or maternal conditions,” shares Rodriguez. The neonatologist works hand-in-hand with the obstetrician as well.
A team, usually including a neonatologist, nurses, respiratory therapists, and physical therapists, works toward the best outcome for the baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. “The baby is under constant evaluation from the moment he comes in to the moment he leaves. He is always being monitored and assessed as he makes different developmental milestones,” says Jackie Heanon, nurse and director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Coliseum Hospital in Macon.
Breastfeeding is encouraged. “One of the things we have a big focus on is the use of breast milk in the premature baby. Because the baby born at twenty-eight weeks will not be able to eat immediately, we have to give him what is called hyperalimentation, which is protein, fat, and glucose with IVs. Then at about a week, we start trying to introduce nutrition by tube into the stomach. Ideally, we want to use breast milk because it is much better tolerated and provides the baby with protective things,” explains Rodriguez.
The baby may be in the hospital for a few weeks to a few months, which is difficult for new parents. “The scary part for me was that I did not get to hold my babies,” reflects Tonn. Those who had successful premature births remain thankful for the outcome. “My girls are healthy and wonderful. A lot of issues can come from premature birth, like blindness, deafness, and cerebral palsy, but we did not have that experience,” says Tonn.
Families are well taken care of while their baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit. “The Ronald McDonald House is a great asset to the units, because it provides a home away from home for families alongside others who are going through the same thing. This establishes a social network to share their experiences,” says Rodriguez. Remember that your baby will be home when he is ready. “My advice would be to have patience, remain positive, and look at the good things that are happening. Be proactive, ask questions when you have concerns, and do not stand back,” shares Tonn.
Strides are expected to continue. “Our first mission at March of Dimes was to find a cure for polio, and we did it. Now we have moved on, and we are trying to fight premature births,” shares Simmons. Coliseum Hospital is even celebrating the success stories of premature births. “We have an annual preemie party, which is a great opportunity for families to come back and show us that the babies are doing great, and so we can see the babies are doing fantastic,” shares Rodriguez. This is a tradition for many Central Georgia families.
Premature birth is just a phase in the baby’s life. “The majority of babies that are graduates from the intensive care nursery go on to be productive members of society, but a small percentage have significant complications that require significant interventions for the first years of their life,” says Rodriguez. Tonn’s children are proof of the victories that can occur. “My girls have walked and talked at the appropriate times. They dance and sing and are getting ready to start pre-kindergarten next year. We had so many odds packed against us, but we did it. There are happy endings, and my girls are proof of that,” says Tonn.
You can support the cause by attending March for Babies in April at The Ocmulgee National Monument. “It is the March of Dimes’ premier fundraising event that benefits all babies, those born healthy as well as those who need help to survive and thrive,” says Simmons. You can sign up today. “You will help fund lifesaving research and educational programs aimed at reaching the goal of giving every baby a healthy start,” adds Simmons.