Percentage of 2010 births classified as "preterm"
• Alabama: 15.6 percent
• Georgia: 13.8 percent
• Tennessee: 12.9 percent
Note: Preterm is defined as less than 37 complete weeks of gestation
Source: National Vital Statistics Report
First laugh, first crawl, first word -- every year parents fill baby books with familiar accomplishments.
Twelve-month-old Brielle Barnes' parents celebrated much different milestones. First bottle. First night maintaining body temperature. First breath.
Brielle came into the world at 2 pounds, 7 ounces, after only 31 weeks of gestation. On Saturday she celebrated the birthday of her first neighbor and fellow premature baby, Cheyenne Douglas. The two lay next to each other at Erlanger Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where Cheyenne spent the first 110 days of her life.
Their moms shared the ordeal.
"It's hard to relate for someone who had a full-term baby," said Brielle's mother, Nicole Barnes.
"NICU was my full-time job," added Cheyenne's mother, Missy Douglas.
The two spoke of long hours at the hospital, of waiting days to hold their babies for the first time and of seeing both turn gray as their tiny bodies struggled to breathe.
In an effort to give back to the people who helped care for Cheyenne, her parents celebrated her first birthday with a public party at the East Ridge Community Center. The event was a fundraiser for Erlanger's T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital and food drive for the Ronald McDonald House. They also held a blood drive and promoted preemie awareness.
Money donated to the hospital will go toward buying kangaroo chairs -- wide-backed recliners.
Douglas and Barnes explained that holding a baby skin-to-skin promotes bonding in the child and milk production in the mother. Also, a mother's heartbeat is believed to soothe the baby with sounds familiar from the womb.
However, it's difficult to snuggle an infant with a feeding tube, respirator and IVs. Kangaroo chairs, they say, support preemies' unique ergonomic needs and make intimacy much easier.
Wanda Dossantos, a NICU nurse for 20 years and party guest, noted how important parent contact is for all infants, but how difficult it can be with fragile, pre-term babies. She said that caregivers try to include parents as much as possible, even if only to take a child's temperature or change her diaper.
However, even that can be difficult. Barnes said Brielle was so weak she could hold the infant only for 30 minutes every three hours and had to change her diaper through portholes in Brielle's pod.
Cheyenne's birthday also featured a table brimming with food to be donated to the Ronald McDonald House. For $10 a night and some help maintaining the facility, parents of sick children can get a bed and a hot meal as well as access to a kitchen and laundry machines. It also offers a place of mutual support for families affected by pre-term births.
The Barnes family lives two hours away from the hospital in Blairsville, Ga. Brielle's father, Brad Barnes, said that his daughter spent 39 days in NICU, and his wife stayed 38 nights at the Ronald McDonald House.
Barnes explained the pressures of trying to support his family financially and emotionally while being helpless to heal his struggling baby.
Pausing to collect himself, he said, "I won't take help for anything, but at a moment when you're not prepared and you have no place to go, [Ronald McDonald House] really takes care of your needs. I can't speak highly enough of how we were taken care of."
Finally, family, friends, preemie parents and hospital staff were encouraged to visit the party's on-site bloodmobile. Douglas explained that even at a birth weight of less than 2 pounds, Cheyenne required six blood transfusions during her hospital stay.
Today, Brielle and Cheyenne are both healthy and happy. The crowd began singing "Happy Birthday," and Dossantos joined in.
When the song ended, she watched Cheyenne taste some frosting.
"I have the best job in the world," she said. "I see miracles happen every day."