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While Chris Murphy was out of town, he received an upsetting call. His wife, Jordan, was in labor and hundreds of miles away. But even more worrisome: Jordan was only 31 weeks pregnant.
“We weren’t expecting him to come early,” Murphy, 28, who lives in West Frankfort, Illinois, told TODAY.
On top of being early, their son, Remy, faced many challenges: He had hydrocephalus, a fluid build-up in the brain; his lungs were attached to his stomach and his intestine twisted. Within 24 hours, Remy, had surgery to separate his stomach and lungs and create an ostomy. The first 24 hours of Remy’s life were the most stressful of Murphy's life.
“I wish I would have had better insight into how difficult it was going to be,” Murphy said. “You never really can prepare for a preemie. It just kind of happens.”
The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) presents its own challenges. “The NICU is an amazing place and they do wonders there. It is also a very scary and traumatizing place,” Murphy said.
Here's what Murphy and other dads learned while parenting their preemies.
1. Ask for help right away.
Murphy thought he could handle the stress alone. But watching Remy fight for his life in the NICU for four months felt too overwhelming. Murphy started drinking, gained weight and lashed out at his family before asking for support.
“I should have gotten a therapist right away,” he said. “No matter how strong you think you are mentally, you will break down.”
2. Ask lots of questions.
When Steve Michener’s wife, Carissa, delivered their daughter at 24-weeks pregnant, he felt scared. His daughter, Claire, weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces, and her skin was so thin he could see her heart beating through her chest. During her two months in the NICU, he often thought Claire was dying but felt confused. He wished he would have pestered the doctors more.
“We didn’t know what questions to ask,” the 39-year-old from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “I was definitely out of my league.”
3. There are a lot of different answers.
When Mike Ryan’s wife, Natalie, gave birth to their daughter Juliet at 33 weeks, the couple worried. Their questions often received conflicting answers from doctors.
“That was the biggest frustration,” Ryan, 37 of Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “Each doctor has a different opinion and that is why things changed a little bit daily.”
But the couple realized that the doctors knew what was best.
"We said 'Let’s trust the doctors and trust what they are saying. This is their profession. They know what they are doing better than us,'" he said.
4. Sometimes you go with your gut.
Daniel Corbin’s son, Noah, was born 5 weeks early and he, too, felt frustrated by the varied opinions he and his wife, Meghan, heard. While they worried about taking advice from the wrong person, they soon realized that they knew what their son needed.
“Take into account some of various subtly conflicting messages from the doctors … and go with your gut,” Corbin, 36, of Pittsburgh, told TODAY.
5. Finding child care for a preemie is tough.
After bringing Claire home after two months in NICU, Michener and his wife had to return to work. But they weren’t sure who could watch Claire, who was still dependent on oxygen. Their local teen babysitter wasn’t qualified and even experienced nannies felt hesitant.
“Your average babysitter is either not qualified or comfortable,” he said. “Who do you trust to watch your child?”
Luckily, the couple found an older woman didn’t balk at Claire’s medical needs.
6. You won’t break your baby.
When Brody Gilbert’s son, Cooper, was born at 32 weeks he only weighed 3 pounds 2 ounces. Gilbert worried holding him could hurt him.
“I would have loved to try something out in a risk-free environment,” Gilbert, 38, of Monongahela, Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “It was definitely intimidating.”
When the nurses explained how skin-to-skin contact would help Cooper thrive, Gilbert knew he had to hold his tiny son.
“I was excited in a nervous way,” he said.
Michener had a similar realization about holding his daughter: “They are not as breakable as I always thought.”
7. Having a preemie stirs up emotions.
Chris Murphy struggled with feeling helpless and scared.
“I was on a rollercoaster of emotion,” he said. “I wish I would have had a better insight into … how difficult it was really going to be.”
Brody Gilbert grappled with his feelings, too.
“I have never felt more powerless in my life,” he said. “Your emotions do get the best of you.”
And Daniel Corbin experienced doubts: “I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.”
8. It gets better.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Murphy.
Even though Remy’s had 15 surgeries, including a stent in his brain, he is a happy, active 3-year-old.
At almost 6-months-old, Cooper weighs 17 pounds and is “perfectly healthy, happy.”
Claire, 7, taught herself how to ride a bike and makes her parents nervous because she's "physically strong and strong-willed."
Noah is thriving at almost 6 months.
And Juliet, 5, recently graduated pre-kindergarten — dressed as Batgirl.