Mom, it hurts!
Blog by: Danielle Matthews
Pain is subjective, yet measurable. Pain is evident, yet also invisible. Pain screams, yet is silent.
How can we judge the pain of another? How can we say someone else does not feel pain? I knew, intrinsically, that my 27-wk 2-day old daughter felt pain when the giant teddy bear of a nurse kept squeezing her heel to coax out one more drop of blood. He knew it. His hands shook and sweat rolled down his face. I pleaded, “Stop! She doesn’t have enough as it is!” I was barely able to stand, the c-section pain so great, yet I knew she was in pain and could not advocate for herself. Her angry kitten cries did not rank above the constant tests she would have over the next two months. I am her mother. It was my job to give her pain a voice because she could not. If I wasn’t allowed to touch her because her skin was too fragile, surely the leads stuck to and pulled from her skin and all the tests and tubes hurt.
The body remembers pain and trauma. It remembers good things, too. That’s why a pleasant smell of fresh bread triggers a sweet memory of grandma. For the preemies, how do we know the effects of tests, tubes, surgeries, and procedures on their perception of pain in the future? When my first preemie was 2 years old, it took 2 days before I realized her arm was broken. She never cried. She just hesitated to use her arm. Is there a connection? I don’t know. I do know that she still does not react to pain the same way as others, including her 33-wk preemie sister. It’s as if she has normalized pain.
While I was pregnant with my first, someone told me to not assign feelings to my baby because babies do not have feelings. Apparently, some scientists of the past thought preemies didn’t feel pain! Both thoughts are really stupid! Actually, they’re dangerous because pain and feelings about pain are signals that somethings is wrong. These signals save lives! Don’t ignore them! Explore them, learn them, and do what you can to alleviate the pain while helping them manage their feelings.
So, what do we do? We are not the neonatologist or the NICU nurse. Are we even allowed to question what they do? Yes! You absolutely question and advocate for your child! You did not ask to join the preemie parent club. This was not your birth plan. Even in the unbalanced hormone fog, do your best to be involved. Ask why. Question the number of x-rays in a day if it seems excessive. You will learn terms you never thought you’d know. “Brady” will never again mean that childhood friend or that football guy. That’s okay. You can do this. You carried this too-small child as long as you could. You can’t walk your child’s journey or take their place, but you can be their voice. Be their champion as you navigate this strange, horrible, beautiful time. Learn your child’s expressions, movements, and the way they mold into your body when you can finally hold them. You’ll know when they are having a better day and when they are exhausted by it all just by the way they lay against your skin like they need you the most. You will know by the pallor of their skin. You will know when it’s time to ask the “normal” questions and when it’s time to ask the harder questions. Ask about pain management. Know their options, both holistically (music and a contrast stuffed animal like a penguin!) and medicinally. Their pain is not yours, but they are yours. You are their best medicine.
Then, eleven years on, when you remember the sounds, the alarms, and your baby’s pain, you will know you did as much as you knew how to do. You will know you are their advocate and their voice.