Almost one out of every 10 infants in the US is born prematurely.
A birth is premature if the baby arrives at least three weeks early – or, prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy.
Premature babies suffer a greater risk of breathing problems, feeding problems and are more susceptible to contracting infections.
There is a lot of talk about the almost non-existent mental healthcare for parents of preemies. The bulk of the conversation, rightly, focuses on mothers, who are also still recovering physically. But fathers, too, play a vital role.
A 2017 study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that fathers of premature babies are more stressed than mothers, especially once the infants are out of the hospital and being cared for at home.
This can stem from anxiety over the baby’s medical condition and helplessness and frustration over the inability to help the baby.
Brody Gilbert, Steve Michener and Chris Murphy all experienced these emotions when their wives gave birth, exacerbated by the fact that nobody had told them what to expect when having a premature baby.
Now the three men are sharing their stories, explaining the fears they had for their newborns, how they learned to become parents to preemies and what advice they would offer other fathers of babies born prematurely.
Three fathers of preemies are opening up about the reality of a baby arriving early. Chris Murphy’s son (left) arrived at 31 weeks while Brody Gilbert’s son (right) arrived at 32 weeks
They explain the fears they had for their newborns and what advice they would offer fathers of babies born prematurely. Pictured: Steve Michener with his daughter, who arrived at 24 weeks
‘I was scared to hold her because I thought I would hurt her’: Steve describes how his daughter Claire was so small he could fit both her arms through his ring
Steve Michener said his wife Carissa’s pregnancy was going well until about a week before their daughter was born.
‘My wife knew something was wrong because every night she would take a bath and fill a bottle with cold water and put it against her stomach,’ Steve, 39, told Daily Mail Online.
The baby would usually kick or push away from the stark temperature difference between the warm bath water and the cold bottle.
‘One night, when she around 23 weeks, it didn’t happen. She said: “I think something is wrong”. And I told her if she was worried, she should go see a doctor.’
Carissa, who works in customer service, visited her doctor in the couple’s town of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.
Steve Michener, from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, said a doctor told his wife, Carissa, that she was low on amniotic fluid and that the baby was in distress and would have to be delivered. Pictured: Steve with his daughter, Claire
Claire was born at 24 week in June 2011 weighing just one pound, nine ounces. Steve said he had a class ring from the Marine Corps and he could fit both of Claire’s arms through the ring up to her shoulders
The doctor told her that she was low on amniotic fluid, a clear, slightly yellow liquid that surrounds the fetus and advised her to stay hydrated.
When she went back to the doctor a week later, she was told the situation had gotten worse and that the baby was in distress and would need to be delivered.
‘I asked the doctor what kind of time frame he was thinking and he said: “We’ll be ready to go in about 30 minutes”,’ Steve, who drives a tractor trailer, said.
‘At the time I smoked so all I could do to calm my nerves was go outside and chain smoke a few cigarettes.’
Within the hour, via c-section, Claire was born at 24 weeks in June 2011 weighing just one pound, nine ounces.
Steve said he was shocked because he had never seen a baby so small before.
‘My oldest daughter, from my first marriage, was born nine pounds even so it was a huge shock to see a baby weighing so many pounds less.’
Both Steve and Carissa (pictured) were warned that, because Claire was going to be born so prematurely, her lungs wouldn’t be developed and there was a chance her eyes might be fused shut
The new parents had several concerns. Prior to the birth, they had been warned that, because Claire was going to be born so prematurely, her lungs wouldn’t be developed and her eyes might be fused shut.
‘They said that she most likely would not cry,’ Steve said.
‘But she made a little cry and she looked up at me so that’s when I knew she was going to be okay.’
Still, there was fear. Steve said he was terrified to hold his daughter because she was so small and fragile – her skin was so translucent that he could see her heart beating through her chest.
‘I had a class ring from when I was in the Marine Corps and you could fit both of her arms through that ring up to her shoulders,’ he said.
Because Claire was so small and suffering from several problems, including perforation of her intestines, she was transferred from West Penn Hospital, where she was born, to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh where there were more adequate resources to take care of such an early preemie.
Weeks went by and Steve said he was still nervous to hold Claire because he was worried he might hurt her.
However, the hospital promoted kangaroo care, a method of caring for premature babies where the baby is laid on a father’s chest or between the mother’s breasts.
Kangaroo care keeps the baby’s body warm, keeps the heartbeat and breathing regular and helps promote deep sleep.
‘My wife was a lot more anxious to do it, but I was scared I was going to hurt her or that she might get sick from it,’ Steve said.
‘I put if off for a long time, until the doctors convinced me that it wasn’t just a good time to bond with her, but that she needed it physical growth.
‘The first time I did it was for two minutes, then she had to be put back in the incubator. but the longer we did it, the more comfortable I got.’
Because Claire was suffering from several problems, including perforation of her intestines, she was transferred from West Penn Hospital, where she was born, to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh where there were more adequate resources to take care of such an early preemie
Claire (pictured this year, aged seven, with a picture of herself as a baby) underwent multiple blood transfusions, her pulse would drop and her heart rate would fluctuate but, after two months, she became stable enough to go home
Because the couple hadn’t been prepped on premature birth, Steve said he didn’t know what to ask.
‘We didn’t know which questions to ask until we were presented with a particular scenario,’ he said.
‘We learned how to watch her and we were told that you know your baby best. So, when she looks different to you, that’s when you know something’s wrong.’
Claire underwent multiple blood transfusions, her pulse would drop and her heart rate would fluctuate.
‘The monitors would beep and you think something’s wrong but the nurse wouldn’t turn around,’ Steve said.
‘They know when something’s wrong and you just have to trust that they know what they’re doing.’
Finally, after two months, Steve and Carissa were able to take their daughter home – and learn how to navigate the world of taking care of a preemie.
Now, at seven years old, Claire is thriving. Steve (pictured, with Claire) said she taught herself how to ride a bicycle and is currently learning how to write in cursive
Steve says the best advice he can offer parents of preemies is to put faith in the medical team. Pictured: Claire and Carissa with Claire and her older brother and sister
‘We had one little oxygen tank that we used for her. Whenever we took her off of it at first, she would fluctuate, so we to keep her on it for a while,’ he said.
When it was time for the couple to go back to work, the next struggle came from finding a babysitter who wasn’t just a local teen.
‘We had to find a babysitter who was okay with dealing with a corded version of a baby,’ Steve said. ‘Luckily we found a fantastic lady who was able to handle all of Claire’s needs.’
Now, at seven years old, Claire is thriving. Steve said she taught herself how to ride a bicycle and is currently learning how to write in cursive.
‘There’s no stopping this girl, she’s perfectly healthy,’ he said.
Steve says the best advice he can offer parents of preemies is to put faith in the medical team.
‘Have trust in the technology that we have today,’ he said.
‘If we had Claire 50 years ago, she probably wouldn’t be here to celebrate her seventh birthday. The doctors really know what they’re doing. It’s going to be a long road ahead.’
Brody said he was forced to ask everyone questions after the birth of his son Cooper because he ‘hadn’t been told anything’ about premature birth
Six days before their son was born, in December 2017, Brody Gilbert and his wife Ashli, who was 32 weeks pregnant, were attending a football game.
‘Ashli said she was feeling some leakage. So she called some girlfriends who already had kids and they told her it was probably nothing,’ Brody, 38, who services nuclear reactors for Westinghouse, told Daily Mail Online.
The next day she went to the hospital to go get checked out but she was advised to go see her OBGYN.
The following day, while waiting for her appointment, Ashli, 38, who is an assistant principal, went to Dunkin Donuts when the unexpected happened.
‘I got a call and I thought she was crying but she was actually laughing,’ Brody said.
‘She said: “I think my water just broke”.’
Brody’s wife, Ashli, went into labor while at a Dunkin Donuts while she was waiting for an appointment with her gynecologist. Pictured: Brody with his son, Cooper
Cooper (left and right) was born in December 2017, weighing three pounds and 12 ounces. Brody said the first thought that crossed his mind was terror, waiting for doctors to tell him that his son was going to be okay
The staff at the small hospital where Ashli’s OBGYN is located weren’t comfortable taking care of her, according to Brody, so she was airlifted to West Penn in Pittsburgh about an hour away.
Ashli was in the hospital for a few days being monitored around the clock. Brody said he would spend nights at the hospital with her.
In the mornings, while the doctors were doing their rounds, he would drive an hour to their house in West Newton, Pennsylvania, to take care of their Shih Tzu, gather some of Ashli’s belongings and then go back to the hospital.
On the morning of December 16, Brody said that his wife woke up between 7am and 8am and began experiencing contractions.
By 11am she was in the delivery room and within 45 minutes, their son, Cooper, was born.
Weighing just three pounds and 12 ounces, terror was the first thought that crossed Brody’s mind.
‘I saw him, and of course I was overjoyed, but I was waiting for physicians to tell us he was okay,’ Brody said.
‘A lot of our friends have had babies but none were preemies so it was sort of unchartered waters. As a first-time parent, I just wanted to make sure they could assess that he was okay and, once they said he was I felt a lot calmer.’
Brody said that he and Ashli (pictured) learned to ask a lot of questions because neither ‘had been told anything’ about premature birth
It was a situation the couple had never expected to find themselves in – no one had really prepared them.
‘With the OBGYN, premature birth was covered but covered to the point of just few sentences,’ he said.
The doctor mentioned that Ashli might be at a higher risk because she was 37 when she became pregnant, but Brody said no other risks were mentioned.
Fertility in women starts to decrease at age 32 and becomes more rapid after age 37. Women become less fertile as they age because they begin life with a fixed number of eggs in their ovaries.
Women over age 35 are more likely to have many risk factors for premature birth such as obesity, pregnancy-related diabetes or high blood pressure, and a complication known as placenta previa, when the placenta nourishing the baby separates from the uterine wall.
The subject didn’t seem to be discussed in any of the preparation Brody did either. He read two books – ‘Dude You’re Gonna Be a Dad!’ and ‘Dude, You’re a Dad!’ – and attended birthing classes with his wife but none covered premature birth.
‘We didn’t know what to expect so I learned to just ask a lot of questions. We asked questions of everyone we met,’ he said.
‘One thing that was a little scary is that, when babies are on breast milk, they can get constipated.’
Breastfed babies around two to three months old, particularly who have not started solid foods, will often go for a few days without a bowel movement.
Because breast milk contains the nutrients and vitamins the baby needs, there is little waste product for the baby to poop out.
‘He wouldn’t go for two to three days so we asked if that was normal and they said: “Yeah that’s normal”,’ said Brody.
‘Then he would go two to three times a day so we asked if that was normal and they said: “Yeah that’s normal”.’ So there’s a lot we had to figure out as went along.’
Brody and Ashli took Cooper home about a month after he was born. He had put on about two pounds. However, there was still a lot to learn about becoming the parent of a preemie.
In February, covered by Ashli’s healthcare, an occupational therapist began visiting their home very few weeks.
‘We learned some tips from them. How to loosen his joints around, how to move his legs to his chest and about tummy-time,’ said Brody.
Brody (pictured) and Ashli took Cooper home about a month after he was born. He had put on about two pounds. However, there was still a lot to learn about becoming the parent of a preemie.
The new dad said a moment that was life-changing was when he a received a gift bag for Christmas (pictured) while Cooper was in the NICU from a family whose son was in the NICU four years prior
Tummy-time is the amount of time the baby spends on his or her stomach, which helps build head, neck and upper body strength.
‘It would help his development because he’s getting a core exercise,’ Brody added.
‘So they would say, if he does 20 minutes every day, try to make it 30 minutes a day. Obviously he is not an athlete, but it’s ok to push him a little bit.’
Around Christmas, when Cooper was still in the NICU, a family was visiting parents of preemie babies and a four-year-old boy was passing around gift bags.
‘I thought it was just for the holidays so I asked the boy what his name was and I introduced him to my son,’ Brody said. ‘And then the mom came over and introduced herself.’
Brody said that she told him her son – the four-year-old passing out the gift-bags – was premature and born at West Penn hospital just like Cooper. Every year, they went back to the hospital to pass around the gift bags.
For Brody, hearing this was life-changing.
‘It was amazing because [the boy] had this awareness – on a child’s level – that this is someplace where he spent a lot of time and now he’s thriving,’ he said.
‘You know, never forget your roots. And now West Penn is ours. So I told my wife we have to do something like this.’
And they did. On Father’s Day, Brody and Ashli visited West Penn to pass out sandwiches and rolls to the staff members.
‘The staff was what got us through it,’ Brody explained.
‘We saw 30 to 40 babies in the NICU and they were so attentive to every single one. We’ll start this year this year with staff, maybe next year do the families, but we plan to do this every single year.’
On Father’s Day, Brody (pictured, with Cooper) said he and Ashli did the same: visiting the NICU to pass out sandwiches and rolls to the staff members
Despite the rocky start of Cooper’s life, the now six-month-old (pictured) is doing well. He weighs about 18 pounds – the average weight of a baby his age – and he appears to be hitting all his developmental milestones
Despite the rocky start of Cooper’s life, the now six-month-old is doing well. He weighs about 18 pounds – the average weight of a baby his age – and he appears to be hitting all his developmental milestones.
‘He’s a rockstar,’ Brody said.
‘He’s turning over all the time, laughing. Not so curious but definitely engaging and entertained by everything you picture a baby being entertained by.
‘Every challenge we give to him – like trying new foods – he takes it even though the beginning of his life was so challenging.’
Brody has some tips for preemie dads, with the first being to get sleep.
‘First thing is both you and your spouse need to manage rest,’ he said.
‘I don’t know how my wife became a robot. The mother does so much more for the baby than the father but make you sure you get enough rest so you can function well for the baby.’
He also says that it’s important that parents to spend some quality time together.
‘If someone competent offers to watch the baby so you can get out for the day or the night, take it. It’s important so you can take some time to reconnect and be together with your spouse,’ Brody said.
‘I became so depressed that my wife and I got divorced’: Chris urges new dads to talk about mental health after his struggle over the early birth of his son
Chris Murphy and his wife Jordan were living in Massachusetts when she first got pregnant.
It was three to four months after they had suffered a miscarriage and the couple was excited. But a visit to the OBGYN revealed that the baby had hydrocephalus, a condition where there is too much of a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.
‘I asked the doctor right away what the best and worst case scenario would be,’ Chris, 29, told Daily Mail Online.
‘He said best case scenario is he comes out fine and he’ll need a shunt. The worst case is he has a lot of brain damage and his brain won’t be able to develop.’
A week or two after that appointment, when Jordan, now 31, was about 16 weeks pregnant, the couple decided to move back to her hometown of West Frankfort, Illinois, so she could be surrounded with support.
Chris Murphy, from West Frankfort, Illinois, was on a business trip in Mississippi when he got a call that his wife, Jordan, was in labor in October 2014. Pictured: Chris and Jordan’s son, Remy
An OBGYN had told the couple Remy had hydrocephalus, too much of a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. But he also had an imperforate anus – or no rectum – his lungs were attached to his stomach and his intestine twisted
Within 24 hours, Remy had to undergo surgery to separate his stomach and lungs and create an ostomy. Chris said that at first he didn’t know how to handle the news that Remy would need a lot more surgeries than the two or three he had been expecting. Pictured: Chris, left, with Remy, and right, with Remy and Jordan
In October 2014, when Jordan was 29 weeks pregnant, Chris, an engineer was away on business in Mississippi when he got a call that she was in labor.
Within 12 to 13 hours, Chris made his way back to Illinois. Jordan was in the hospital for two weeks before their son, Remy, was born.
While the couple knew about the hydrocephalus, they didn’t know about the slew of other health problems Remy would have.
He had an imperforate anus – or no rectum – his lungs were attached to his stomach and his intestine twisted.
Within 24 hours, Remy had to undergo surgery to separate his stomach and lungs and create an ostomy.
‘When you think of birth, you think of getting to hold your kid and go home a few days later, everything’s good go,’ Chris said.
‘But with Remy, they took him away into the NICU.’
Chris said that at first he didn’t know how to handle the news that Remy would need a lot more surgeries – seven to eight before leaving the NICU – than the two or three he had been expecting.
‘I was in shock, I passed out and I was hyperventilating. I was tired, there was a lot of information that was being passed about what was going on. You don’t know how to take it.’
‘The whole time you’re thinking: “Is he gonna make it or is something going to go wrong?”
‘At some time, you make the decision to trust the doctors. If the worst happens, think about it then and not in the moment when your son needs you.’
Chris said he and Jordan learned to ask a lot of questions so they could become ‘experts’ in all the problems Remy faced.
Over the course of two-and-a-half years, Remy has had 15 surgeries: including surgery to reconnect his stomach and reroute his intestines, spinal surgery, and kidney surgery.
Chris (pictured with Remy, age three) says all the pressure of Remy’s condition began to create stress and he began to drink a lot and lash out
‘It wasn’t really we’ll take a deep breath and: “Hey, we’re done with surgery”.’ Chris said.
‘It’s we’ll take a little breath and be like: “Hey, he’s okay, but we have another one.”
‘The doctors started categorizing surgeries as in which ones he needs right away and which can be put off. And I was like how many surgeries does someone need when you start categorizing them?’
Chris was able to get a few weeks off work before he had to go back. He would travel to the hospital after work and an hour back home four to five days per week.
Meanwhile, Jordan stayed in the hospital for the couple of months Remy was in the NICU.
‘When we took Remy home, it was one of the most exciting days but also frightening and scary,’ Chris said.
‘We’re not just changing a diaper, we’re also changing an ostomy bag. I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel because we still knew there was so much to come.
‘At one point, we knew about five surgeries that had been scheduled back-to-back.’
The pressure began to take its toll on Chris. He said he had been raised to be a ‘strong man’, to not let people know how he was feeling.
‘I drank a little too much. I was depressed, going crazy, I was worried about Remy but I was worried about Jordan too,’ he said.
‘I blew up and I got angry really fast, not physically but I lashed out at home. That was a really hard time for me.’
It got so bad that he and Jordan got divorced around the end of 2015. Chris said he began to sink into a depression, not eating and not sleeping. He said in one month he dropped 40 pounds.
But it wasn’t until he was with his parents and he lashed out in anger that he realized he needed help.
According to a 2016 Australian study, in cases of premature babies born 30 weeks or earlier, fathers had 11 times the depression risk compared to those of full-term babies.
Researchers generally believe the cause is a mix of hormonal changes – a rise in estrogen and a decrease in testosterone – coupled with severe fatigue
‘I went to a therapist. He really helped get through everything out that I needed to talk about,’ said Chris.
‘I’m now in tune with what’s going on in my head and body. He prescribed antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and we tried different ones until we found the combination that worked best for me.’
Chris said that ‘once everything calmed down, he and Jordan began speaking again, eventually reconciling in 2017. Currently, they’re expecting another baby boy who is due in August.
‘It wasn’t planned but we did always want to have another kid,’ he said.
‘At first it was scary. When we got to 31 weeks, around the time Remy was born, we got a little nervous but there have been no signs of trouble this time around.’
Despite the astounding number of surgeries Remy has had, Chris says it hasn’t halted his development.
Chris and Jordan ended up divorcing in 2015 and he ended up going to see a therapist who prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications
The pair reconciled in 2017 and are currently expecting another baby boy, due in August. Pictured: Remy
Remy (pictured) has had 15 surgeries in total, receiving his last one in mid-2017, but Chris says it hasn’t halted his development and that he’s a happy three-year-old
‘Remy is the happiest little boy in the world. I don’t know what else to say besides he’s awesome and always smiling,’ he said.
‘You probably would never know he’s had 15 surgeries. He’s been hitting all his developmental milestones.’
Chris said that’s he’s learned plenty of lessons since becoming a father but that the biggest one is to not be alone if you need help.
‘Be there for your wife or girlfriend. Don’t forget that you guys are in this together
‘If you need help, get it or start off getting help at the hospital and don’t be afraid to talk about it.’