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Inside the NICU: Coping with a premature birth

(KATV Photo)

One in 10 babies is born too early, according to the March of Dimes.

It's something we know happens, but unless it's happened to you, it's hard to understand.

The first time Channel 7's Erin Hawley saw her children, Charlotte and Graham, was in pictures on her husband's phone.

They were in the neonatal intensive care unit, the NICU, born two months too soon.

Full-term for a baby is considered 40 weeks. Anything less than 37 is considered premature.

Jane Swaty entered the world at Baptist Hospital in Little Rock at 27 weeks after her mom, Rachael, went into pre-term labor with unexplained bleeding.

"She was tiny and adorable and perfect," Swaty described.

She weighed 2 pounds 5 ounces.

"As a NICU mom, you're just terrified," Swaty said.

A few miles away at UAMS, a different baby but the same emotions.

"I mean it's unbelievably scary," said Kylee Oates. "You can't imagine it."

Oates was 23 weeks pregnant when her amniotic fluid sac ruptured.

Five days later, Maylee Oates was born, weighing just 1 pound 3 ounces. She was almost half the size of Rachael's daughter, Jane.

Both girls much too small.

"That's the really tough part, for people to gasp when they see your child," Oates recalled. "That's hard. To see someone go 'Ohhhh.' And that's my baby."

Maylee was on a ventilator, her eyes still fused shut, her tiny body fighting for each minute.

"We have watched Maylee grow outside of my womb, instead of inside of me," Oates said.

She was born November 20th. March 10th was Maylee's due date.

"It's just hard. This whole thing is just hard," Oates said, trying not to cry. "It is not how you expect to become a mom. This isn't how I imagined bringing a child into the world."

"Missing a whole trimester of a pregnancy, you feel grief for losing that and then you're looking to the future and you know there may be more grief coming," Swaty said. "You may have two days with your baby, you may have 10 days with your baby. And in all those moments, there's immense sadness, there's immense grief and longing for things that you don't know that you'll ever have."

The reality is some babies don't go home.

Every NICU parent lives in fear that at any moment their child's fight could be over.

But mixed in with the grief and fear are moments of hope and profound joy.

Some of those moments: Swaty's first time holding Jane almost two weeks after she was born. Maylee's first time to wear clothes three months after she was born. The first time Erin Hawley saw daughter Charlotte's face without an oxygen tube, when Charlotte was finally able to breathe on her own.

"You think about bringing home a baby when you're pregnant and you think about all the things you'll say and all the things you'll do to help her," Swaty said through tears. "And then you're faced with this huge challenge of trying to find every good moment of a very scary thing."

The Swaty's NICU story has a happy ending. They were able to take Jane home after 95 days in the NICU.

After 112 days, the Oates' NICU story has chapters left to unfold.

"In the beginning, I would just stand there and just look at her and just cry, and just tell her that I loved her and that I knew she would grow up to be big and strong, and that I believed in her," Oates said. "And she's doing good. She's a miracle."

All babies are miracles. But the smallest babies are the biggest miracles.

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