A Preemie’s Joy Gives Hope to Parents Everywhere

At just 28 weeks, this baby not only smiled — she changed minds

by Jennifer Fallon | Updated 21 Oct 2016 at 11:59 PM

Two-year-old Freya Vinje from Minnesota is making headlines for a picture snapped when she was only five days old.

The child was born on Thanksgiving Day in 2014 after doctors performed an emergency C-section because her mother, Lauren, had developed preeclampsia. Born at just 28 weeks, Freya Vinje weighed in barely above four pounds. She spent more than a month in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Her mother didn't get to hold her immediately after she was born because doctors had to make sure little Freya was breathing properly first, a foremost concern with premature infants.

But when the jubilant mom held her precious baby five days later, she said to her premature daughter, "Should we send a picture to Daddy?" Right then little Freya gave her a beautiful, ear-to-ear smile. Lauren Vinje captured a perfect, happy moment.

Vinje only recently shared the photograph on a blog "Birth without Fear" in the hopes it would lift the spirits of other parents of premature babies. These mothers often give birth in emergency situations without much time to prepare. They may not have their nurseries organized or infant supplies ready for the arrival, and it can throw their lives into chaos.

Some of them even develop post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr. Suzanne Staebler, professor at Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta. Of Freya’s sweet photograph, Dr. Staebler said, "What this picture conveys is hope, because it’s really hard to see on the other side when you’re in the midst of it. That picture says, ‘There is another side, we will get through this, we will be OK.’"

Related: Preemie Birth Risks

Dr. Staebler also said her own experiences in the NICU have shown her that these babies, tiny as they are, can feel joy. A common assumption among physicians is that babies don’t usually begin responding until they are about a month old. But Dr. Staebler says she has seen differently in the babies she has cared for.

Her joy as a five-day-old baby has helped numerous parents with NICU infants feel optimistic about the outcome for their own children.

"We can’t measure joy like we can pain, but you’re not going to tell me they don’t experience it," she told LifeZette. "They know their mother’s heartbeat, they know their mother’s voice, their mother’s scent. So when Mom is nearby, when she’s speaking to them, when she’s touching them and doing 'skin-to-skin,' they know and they respond physiologically. Their heart rate lowers, their oxygen requirement lowers, their temperature regulates. They know when their mom is near."

Premature birth, defined as birth before 37 weeks, occurs in 1 out of every 10 pregnancies in the U.S. Parents of these infants rejoice over their children but simultaneously worry about the long-term neurological and developmental problems that often afflict these babies.

Doctors Deborah L. Davis and Mara Tesler Stein of the March of Dimes recommend that parents take the time to share their story and connect with others in similar experiences, so that they can take comfort in the knowledge that they’re not alone in their struggles. They recommend asking the NICU staff if there are NICU graduate parents who can lend support and a listening ear during a difficult — yet joyful — time.

Little Freya Vinje’s photograph has been liked more than 2,000 times on social media outlets and has been featured in major news articles. Her joy as a five-day-old baby has helped numerous parents with NICU infants feel optimistic about the outcome for their own children. Now two years old next month, Freya maintains a happy outlook still. "She is the best thing that has happened to us," Lauren Vinje told ABC News, then added, "She’s still the happy little girl in that photo."

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