DOWNTOWN — I used to write a column about parenting for this paper called Mommie Brain. I chronicled my experiences with my older son, Benjamin, and then briefly when I had my younger son, Eli. The columns stopped as I got too busy with both of them and their needs. So forgive me if this piece is a little rusty as I dust off my writing muscle.
Every now and then the editor of this paper will let me come back when a parenting issue is important and I need to comment on it. And this is important.
November is Prematurity Awareness Month.
See, Eli was premature and Benjamin was in the NICU (Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit) too for a different reason. I am happy to report they are doing quite well (but not without lots of early intervention for each). Feeling grateful, I have participated in the March of Dimes’ March for Babies for the last few years and then even began volunteering for them. I want to make sure people know the risks, know how serious this can be, know that they should not schedule elective deliveries before 39 weeks.
Not only is November Prematurity Awareness Month, but Nov. 17, specifically, was World Prematurity Day, where the March of Dimes joins with other parent groups and organizations around the world to raise awareness about premature birth and how it can be prevented.
So as we raise awareness around the world, I started thinking about our little world here on the Westside of Los Angeles. Santa Monica is home to two tremendous NICUs treating premature babies, those of Saint John’s Health Center and Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital.
Prematurity is serious. It can cause learning, vision, hearing, feeding, digestive and respiratory problems, cerebral palsy and even death. According to the March of Dimes, in one year in greater Los Angeles, 10.3 percent of babies born are premature and 716 babies will die before their first birthday.
Great strides are being made for these babies. Just this week, the PREEMIE Reauthorization Act was passed by Congress, a bill that aims to reduce infant mortality caused by prematurity. Earlier this month, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine redefined “term pregnancy” and replaced it with a series of more specific labels: Early term, full term, late term and post term.
“These new terms show that prematurity is being taken seriously,” says Dr. Maria Ottavi, an OBGYN at Saint John’s.
“Babies do better if they get to stay in,” Ottavi says. From what she has seen, prematurity rates have improved and doctors are doing a better job predicting pre-term birth, especially the second time around.
Dr. Evelyn Tintoc, of Saint John’s NICU, agrees. “There has been less prematurity because mothers have better care.”
Dr. Valencia Walker, a neo-natologist at UCLA-Santa Monica, agrees that mothers’ health is a huge component in prematurity, but she wouldn’t go so far as to say things are improving greatly. Specifically, on the Westside, there is advanced maternal age and assisted reproductive technology which can raise the chances of prematurity.
“We want to decrease the number,” she says. “Every single week of gestation has a huge impact on healthy outcomes. Leaving the hospital without your baby is one of the most emotionally devastating experiences,” she says.
I can attest to that. We had to leave Benjamin while we went home and his new nursery remained empty. I pumped my breast milk while staring at his picture as a screensaver on my laptop, not exactly how I imagined my first few weeks of motherhood.
For families whose initial parenting experience is not as they imagined either, each hospital has programs set up to assist them. In addition to regular NICU family support groups, and top medical care for the babies, there are lactation consultants and occupational therapists available. UCLA also has a high-risk infant follow up program where they receive developmental assessments and referrals for early intervention if needed.
Katie Wheeler, a clinical social worker at UCLA, explained one of their newest programs — video conferencing with babies in the NICU. With this program, grandparents, young siblings who are not allowed in due to flu season or even parents who have to return to work can see their babies. Certainly better than a screensaver on a laptop.
In honor of World Prematurity Day, let’s say thank you to those in our world of Santa Monica who are taking care of our babies and let’s spread the word to help keep our babies out of the NICU.
I just sent Dr. Tintoc, the doctor who helped both of my sons, pictures of them healthy and smiling, the best thank you I can give.
Rachel Zients Schinderman is a writer, teacher and mother. You can reach her through www.mommiebrain.com.