When my son, Haylen, was born at 27wks 5days (2 lbs 13oz, 15.5 inches), we were much like other parents of preemies and we were caught completely unaware and off guard. From my own experience, I realized that though most people know that some babies are born prematurely, they really don’t understand the extent of what these babies can go through in the NICU before they are sent home with their parents, and how those parents will go to great lengths to protect those babies from having to go through anything else. Our son came home in early Oct of 2009, right in the middle of flu season.
I had many discussions with the nurses and doctors in the NICU about flu shots and what I would have to do to protect my son. Babies can not get the flu shot until six months of age, and he obviously had a way to go before he could have his. This was the year when the H1N1 was killing children and pregnant women, putting extra fear in our hearts about how we were going to protect him. Our daughter, Rayna, was in second grade at the time, and as far as I am concerned, elementary schools are the worst place to be if you want to avoid the flu.
We became a bit obsessed with keeping our son safe from the flu. The nurses told us that this is one time when it is okay to be paranoid, as the flu could very easily be deadly to my son. He had gone through so many procedures in this 77 days in the NICU, and the last thing I could face was watching him get sick and have to go back to a hospital with his life hanging in the balance. We made plans for our home that would rival the cleanliness in any NICU while we were preparing to bring him home.
We bought all the hand sanitizer that we could find. We bought face masks in the event we got sick. We stocked up on antibacterial soap and paper towels. We then called our daughter’s teacher and asked her to contact us right away if the flu showed up in the school. We told family that they had to stagger visits and if they were sick they had to stay away. We did not go anywhere unnecessary. Our daughter showered the moment she got home from school to wash away the germs, and when the H1N1 was confirmed in our area, our daughter was pulled from school until we could find the flu shot for her, which as you may remember, was in very short supply.
This all sounded crazy to our friends and family, but they humored us anyway. My husband had to go to work, but otherwise, we only went out when necessary, and we never took Haylen out unless he had a doctors appointment. The peds office allowed us to bypass the waiting room and we were taken straight in so that he could avoid other sick children. Thankfully, our son never got sick with the flu, and as soon as he was old enough to get a flu shot, he got one. We did as soon as we could, and so did our daughter.
The saddest part of this was that we had to miss out on many holiday celebrations with our family. We went to a few places but kept Haylen out of the arms of most people. Everyone was longing to hold and cuddle him, but it was simply out of the question. We were all sad to miss the usual fun with family and friends last year, but his immune system could not have handled the flu well. Though some thought we were overreacting, everyone understood and went along with our wishes. We usually visit a lot of family, but last year, we only went to two places, as I recall, and we stayed only for a very brief time.
If you find yourself bringing your preemie home during the holidays, you too may have to miss out on holiday traditions that you look forward to every year. Just remember why you are doing it, and come up with ways to still share special moments, even when you must stay home. Take pictures and videos to share, and get a web cam for your computer. Some of the suggestions your NICU may give you may sound a bit extreme, but you already know you’ll do anything to keep your baby safe.
If you have the same worries we did, you can do a few things to keep the holidays as normal as you can. Get a tree, and do most of your holiday shopping online. Ask for small family gatherings so that you can come and go quickly without a lot of people hovering around the baby. Insist on everyone who may come to wash up and use hand sanitizer and to stay home if they are or have recently been sick or exposed to someone else who is sick. Bake cookies, sing songs, and hang stockings. Do as many things as you can that remind you of the holidays and remember that next year will be different.
This year, we will make the usual rounds with our children and though we can not make up for missing last year, we can enjoy the holidays this year. We will still be weary of sneezes and sniffles, but most parents are. The Christmas we spent last year may have included less people, but it was still our first Christmas with our son, and like him, it was unlike any we had known before. Be happy, be merry, and be safe, and remember that family can be more understanding than you think.