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1st March 2015

Wheezes & Worries: How my son (and I) began to breathe easier

Mothers are biologically hard-wired to protect their children. We feel their struggles within our own bodies. When my son was born pre-term and had trouble breathing, I could hardly breathe myself. How could I guarantee that he would be healthy & happy? That was the thing. I couldn’t.

The first time I worried about my son’s breathing, he was still in utero. At 34 weeks gestation, he was peacefully inhaling and exhaling amniotic fluid, completely unaware that within 48 hours, he would be taking his first real breath in the outside world.

I sat in the hospital bed, taking deep breaths of my own, as the doctor explained that my membranes had ruptured, my baby would be born preterm, and there was a chance that his lungs were not fully developed. The doctor gave me a steroid to help accelerate his lung development, and assured me that all would be well.

Two days later, a team of doctors and nurses were preparing for Reed’s arrival. The doctor told me, “If he comes out screaming, his lungs are working and you’ll be able to hold him.” As he was delivered, I made a silent wish for my baby to cry, and he did not disappoint! His tiny screams pierced the room, and they placed him on my chest. He was small, wrinkled, and perfect.

Our bonding time didn’t last long. Reed’s oxygen levels were low, and dropping. The nurses whisked him away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. By the time I saw him again, he looked like a tiny tangle of wires and medical tape. There were two pulse oximeters, one on his hand and one on his foot, measuring the amount of oxygen in his blood. He had three circular stickers on his chest, with wires sending heart and respiratory readings to a cardiorespiratory monitor. There was an IV in his arm, braced with a splint and medical tape so he couldn’t pull it out. Delivering oxygen to his tiny lungs was a nose cannula, kept in place by what looked like a white Velcro mustache. I listened to the beeps and tried to decipher the monitor readings. Was he okay? Was he getting enough oxygen?

The next day, the nurses removed the nose cannula (and white mustache) and Reed was officially breathing on his own. A few days later, we were able to keep him in our hospital room overnight. I spent the night with one ear cocked in his direction, trying to hear the little sighs that assured me he was still alive. A few times, I heard gurgles and grunts, and called the night nurse in to listen to him, convinced he wasn’t getting enough air. “That’s just what newborn babies sound like,” she said with a smile.

Credit: Mariellen Brown

A week after he was born, we took our little 5lb baby home. I spent most of our first day at home watching him in his bassinet. I think most parents listen to make sure their baby is breathing at some point, but this became part of my nightly ritual. Was he warm? Could I hear him breathing? Okay, I could go to sleep.

At 11 months, Reed got a chest cold and developed an unsettling wheeze. He was admitted to the hospital for monitoring overnight. As I watched him sleep in the hospital crib with the pulse oximeter on his foot and nose cannula taped to his cheeks, I couldn’t help but think about his time in the NICU. Again I watched the monitors and held my breath. Was he okay? Were we here because he was born early?

We were sent home with a nebulizer to keep on hand for future respiratory illnesses (of which there have been quite a few!). We practiced putting it together, filling it with saline solution, and having Reed inhale the cool mist. We noticed that Reed was able to clear his congestion easier after a nebulizer treatment, and it has become part of our routine when he’s sick.

Receiving the nebulizer gave me some clarity. Here was something specifically designed to help Reed breathe. I realized that it wasn’t my job to breathe for him, and holding my breath in worry didn’t do my body any favors, either.

Now, at 2.5 years old, Reed can put the nebulizer together and help give treatments to himself or his little sister. When we see a cold settling into his lungs, we have a tool that we can use to help open his airways, which makes us all breathe a little easier.