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Earlier this year, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, first-time-mom Zeenia gave birth to her beautiful baby, Shanaya, three months prior to her expected date of delivery.
In this interview, we talk to Zeenia about everything – right from her birth story to what to expect as a preemie parent, her challenges and learnings so far, and of the life-changing power and beauty of parenthood.
Q1. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Zeenia. First off, congratulations to you and your husband! Baby Shanaya is absolutely adorable. We always like to kick things off by asking – what’s been the best part of becoming a parent?
Ans. Thank you for the lovely wishes. My husband and I are absolutely overjoyed to have become parents to our beautiful baby daughter, Shanaya. I think for me the best part of being a parent is, after all those sleepless nights, just the way my daughter looks at me and smiles. It touches my heart every single time, and it just feels like pure love.
Q2. Can you share a little bit of Shanaya’s birth story with us?
Ans. To answer this question, I have to give you a slight background of what I went through, so here goes. I had a disease called “Preeclampsia” which is a pregnancy complication where your blood pressure is suddenly extremely elevated with no prior intimation. This disease is extremely harmful for the mother and the only solution is to deliver the baby. I was admitted to the hospital in the 28th week of my pregnancy where I was closely monitored, and subsequently delivered Shanaya at 29 weeks, as I could not pull through longer than a week. On 14th January, 2021, I had to have an emergency C-section, and Shanaya was born, weighing all of 2 pounds. So that’s how it began.
Q3. You mentioned that after her birth too, like many preemies, Shanaya dealt with certain complications. Can you share some of those details with us?
Ans. Shanaya has a rare medical condition. On the 4th day after she was born, the doctors found that she had a perforation on the small intestine and had to have a colostomy surgery. This surgery was very intense and had to be divided into two parts as Shanaya was only 2 pounds, and for them to operate on her the second time, she had to be at least 4 pounds.
I wanted to share this to let other parents know that although this is a rare medical condition it's not very uncommon amongst preemie babies. There are a lot of things I had never heard of or known before having a preemie baby and so I just wanted to take this opportunity to put any parents going through the same thing at ease, and to let them know that you’re not alone in this. The most important thing to remember is that your babies might be tiny but they are more resilient than you can imagine. My daughter has truly made me a much stronger woman!
Q4. Having a premature baby can be both emotionally and physically draining. What were some of the things that helped you cope with the mental and physical trauma of the experience?
Ans. Shanaya was in the NICU for almost close to 3 months, so for me I just looked forward to being at the NICU at the earliest every day and staying there as late as I could. Being there, meeting with the doctors & nurses, understanding the treatment she was being given and what each day was like, gave me a lot of peace of mind. Spending as much time with her, feeding her and also pumping right next to her made it slightly easier to come home to an empty crib in my room.
Q5. Can you tell us a little bit about your breastfeeding journey?
Ans. Breastfeeding was a lot harder for me with Shanaya being in the NICU as I had lost the most important few months of breastfeeding which is when the baby latches and learns how to suckle. Unfortunately, Shanaya was not allowed to feed directly from the breast at first as she had gone through the colostomy surgery, and the only way, they fed her my breast milk (that I pumped) was through a tiny feeding tube which was attached to her for the first 2 months.
After the second part of her surgery, they started feeding her my milk through the bottle so it was a lot harder for her to latch on to me for the few feeds I was at the NICU for. Once she was home, I tried to breastfeed her at every alternate meal, as it was very important that she put on the weight she needed to, and while breastfeeding I was not able to judge that bit.
It was very exhausting and mentally challenging along with a lot of tears of “being rejected” by your baby to achieve a successful breastfeeding session. However, since I was making more than enough milk, after about 6 months, my husband and I both took a call that we would just bottle feed her. As long as my baby was getting my milk it should not matter how she's getting it.
To anyone who told me, “Oh you're not still breastfeeding? How will you connect with your baby?”, I just had one thing to say, which was - what I've been through with my daughter was so much bigger, and that mother-daughter connection, both mentally and physically, even years of breastfeeding would not match up to. So, all you mommies out there just do what works best for you and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. A Happy Mommy = A Happy Baby.
Q6. What’s something that every preemie parent should be aware of?
Ans. 1) NICU is an emotional rollercoaster, what’s extremely important to remember is that don’t let your baby see you being upset. They can sense it all - your happiness, your sadness, everything. I can’t tell you how many times I ran into the NICU bathroom for a good cry!
2) Trust the NICU process, and have patience (lots & lots of it). It takes its own time but we are lucky to live in times where science is so advanced that you will go home with a healthy baby, eventually. Just have faith, God knows I've hung on to faith with dear life.
Q7. What are some things parents can do during a visit to the NICU that will help them bond with their preemie?
Ans. 1) Lots of skin-to-skin time! Even with all those wires attached to your little one, skin-to-skin makes it all worth it. Don’t be afraid to do skin-to-skin - it may seem scary when they are so tiny and attached to tubes, but the baby actually gets a lot of comfort from it.
2) Be present, as much as possible. Go to the NICU as much as you can, and spend as much time as is possible. Talk to them, sing to them, laugh with them, they can sense it all.
3) Request the hospital team that either one of the parents receives a full update on baby over the phone at least once a day. It helps keep you in the loop and makes you feel a lot better.
Q8. After bringing Shanaya home from the NICU, what were some of the things you felt you had to be extra mindful of, or things that one needs to look out for when caring for a premature baby?
Ans. One of the most important things is how you feed your baby. They should always be in an upright position while feeding. Be mindful of choking or reflux issues. If you are giving any kind of medication, I recommend a pacifier which has a medicine dispenser. It makes it much easier and you know it’s dispensed the right way.
Q9. Shanaya is such a little bundle of joy! Can you describe her personality for us?
Ans. Thank you. Shanaya is feisty for sure, she knows exactly what she wants. She’s also extremely loving and loves her hugs and kisses. The most amazing quality I believe is her fighting spirit, Shanaya has been a fighter from the day she was born.
Q10. What advice would you give to family and friends on ways in which they can support a NICU parent?
Ans. Be there for them in absolutely anyway you can. 1) Call them give them positive reassurance, talk about happy things. 2) Don't ignore their emotional health, give them a shoulder to cry on. 3) Don’t trivialize their situation. Support of friends and family makes going through the process much easier.
Q11. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! Do you have any other advice for Moms & Dads who might currently be dealing with the same or a similar situation?
Ans. Firstly, I really hope and pray with all my heart that you don’t have to go through a similar situation as we did, but if you are, I can’t stress the importance of just having faith. It’s the toughest thing you're going to have to do. I was SO angry back then. It felt like I was just about learning how to deal with a preemie baby and then there were more complications and everything seemed unfair. So, if you're feeling those emotions, please know it’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling! As much as your friends and family try to understand your situation and be there for you, only you can understand what it actually feels like, so it’s OKAY to not feel OKAY for a while.
But please have faith that it’s all going to be fine. Babies are more resilient that we give them credit for, and their strength will automatically give you the strength you need to deal with it.