Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Importance of Preschool for Preemies

I have become such an advocate for preschool education. In fact, my own personal rule is that I want my kids in part-time preschool as early as possible. I stress that this is a philosophy that we've adopted in our own home, and I would never apply it across the board.

What would we have decided if our kids weren't preemies? I'll never know. Would I have been working full-time? Probably, which would have meant my kids would have been in daycare. But, my personal decision when J was a baby was that I didn't want a babysitter overseeing his therapy, and I was at an in-between place in my career anyway. I couldn't envision seeking full-time employment in the middle of such a difficult time for our family.

Those were our decisions for our family and by no means would I apply what worked for us to other families.

But, I will say this: As babies and small children, preemies are different. They often require trips to specialists, or at least extra visits to pediatricians. They need special protection during cold and flu season, especially against RSV. They often need therapy--and sometimes lots of therapy--to help with eating, walking, and all the other things full-term babies seem to grasp on their own. With J, physical and speech therapy made a huge difference, and I've written about how indebted I feel to his therapists. But, another area that I feel has been a key to his success has been preschool.

We've been lucky enough to have access to a preschool that specializes in developmental delays. It integrates children at or above their ages in terms of development with those who are delayed for a variety of reasons. Interaction with other children does wonders for preemies, especially when the preemie is an only child, as J was. He was so cautious and reserved that he needed to see what other children his age were doing to encourage him to do more. And playing on a playground or seeing kids in a playgroup didn't cut it. He needed the academic environment, the structure, and the proven methods that a preschool can provide.

I could write volumes about our experience with his preschool. They have taken a baby who couldn't walk or talk and encouraged him to be the bright, curious, and energetic boy who was hiding just beneath the surface. J's delays confined him to a body that didn't do so much of what he wanted, and all of the hours at school helped free him. It has been a magical transformation to witness.

And it has been eye-opening for me. I've had people tell me that developmental delays aren't a big deal, that kids will catch up, and while that is probably true, a small child's brain is phenomenally elastic. Studies show that the more a child can do in those first few years, the better that child will do long-term. So, just because many preemies in the past caught up by age 5 or 6, when they were entering kindergarten, doesn't mean that I should be relaxed about helping my kids reach their full potential as early as possible. And the truth is that many of our preemies now have few comparisons. The development of surfactant therapy in 1990 has contributed to the increased health of the tiniest preemies. I doubt J would have lived without it, and he certainly wouldn't be as healthy. Our babies are living in the first decades of increased health for preemies, and along with that health comes increased possibilities.

J and M have received home therapy where someone trained in childhood development encouraged me to try different techniques to help my babies. It was home-based and focused specifically on the needs of my children. Sometimes it was helpful, and sometimes it really wasn't helpful at all. My children do not perform for me the way they do for their teachers and their peers, and I would never claim to be trained or skilled in childhood development the way teachers and therapists are. Not every preemie has access to the kind of resources from which we've benefitted. I know we are so lucky. But, I do think that any good preschool could help preemies who meet minimum requirements for enrollment, such as walking or being potty trained, and I think it's wonderful for preemies to get exposure to other children as soon as they are healthy enough.

All of this is on my mind because M just started attending J's school last week. She is 13 months old now, and I couldn't be more thrilled about her opportunity to learn and grow at the place that has done so much for J. (As a side note, neither of my very independent children cared less when I dropped them off for their first days at school. I thought M might look a little sad, since she is more attached to me than J was, but I was totally wrong. She didn't even give me a second glance!)

From my experience, little kids need interaction with other little kids, and not just in playgroups. But, I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it many times again: I don't know anything about raising full-term babies. Preemies are all I know!

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