Baby Nga was born at home in her mother's bed. They weren't sure exactly what day she was due to arrive, but they knew that this day was too early; the midwife shook her head with fading hope that the infant would make it.
She was too small. She was too early. Medical skills in Vietnam were not advanced enough in the early 1940s to save many of the babies who were born prematurely. Nga's mother gently wrapped her in tiny blankets and kept her close to the oven; both of them sleeping where it was warm, their own version of a modern-day incubator. Her birthdate was not recorded.
Just over twenty years later, Nga was pregnant with her first child and living in the United States. "You will need a c-section," the doctors told her, "You are too small to give birth." It didn't make any difference how she planned to have her baby, because like Nga, her newborn decided to enter the world weeks ahead of schedule. At 5 pounds, she was small, but the doctors in Memphis knew how to care for a baby born at this stage of development.
My mother named me Joy to mark the arrival of 5 pounds of happiness into our new family.
I knew the story of my mother's birth. Her "real" birthday was a running joke in the family because the day on her birth certificate was chosen as a lucky day, not because it was the actual day that she was born. Even my grandmother wasn't sure what the actual calendar day was. I also knew that I was premature. As I grew, my mother, Nga, would remark on how such a small baby could be such a tall adult. I didn't know that this medical history could lead to my own daughter being born early.
My beautiful daughter Kendall was born at 35 weeks. Baby shower gifts were not assembled, supplies for a newborn had yet to be acquired, and a dresser drawer was briefly considered as a temporary bassinet. Like many late preterm newborns, Kendall appeared as a full-sized baby. She had some digestive issues in the first months, but she was healthy and strong. We were lucky. Prematurity remains the top cause of newborn mortality in the United States.
November marks Prematurity Awareness Month. Although we've seen a growth in research about babies born early over the course of my family's three generations of preterm births, nearly 1 in 8 babies in the United States are still born too soon. However, while some preterm births are not preventable, we know now that there are modifiable behaviors that moms can adopt to reduce their risk of preterm birth :
- Cessation of smoking and avoidance of alcohol or drugs.
- Prenatal care from a health care provider (HCP) as soon as you think you may be pregnant, and throughout pregnancy
- Informing your HCP if you've had a previous preterm labor or birth.
- Controlling diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes through your HCP.
- Eating a healthy diet and taking prenatal vitamins.
- Learning the warning signs or symptoms of preterm labor.
Staying healthy during pregnancy and reducing the risk factors of preterm birth are the focus of Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait (HBWW). The HBWW partnership between the March of Dimes and Johnson & Johnson reduced singleton preterm birth rates by 12 percent during a pilot program in Kentucky, and is now implemented in 8 states. Linking the medical community, the Department of Health, the community at large and families, the HBWW program educates and supports pregnant women to help ensure that a mom has a full 39 weeks of pregnancy.
My family's story is not unique, but we have been fortunate Many others who could avoid preterm birth are not as lucky, simply because they're unaware of how to reduce their own risk. During Prematurity Awareness Month, join me in spreading this message. Together, we can save babies' lives by reducing preterm birth. Together, we can ensure that anyone who might be pregnant understands the risk factors for preterm birth and has access to services to help prevent it.