My newest little nephew really is little, because he decided to make his entrance into the world six weeks early, a Pisces instead of an Aries. My sister's water broke unexpectedly, and two days later, my nephew was born after only 34 weeks of gestation. His mother and father and 31/2-year-old sister thus entered the world of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU.

The NICU is a place of miracle and wonder. My nephew, at just over 5 pounds, was a strapping lad compared to some of the neighboring babies in this special nursery, who weighed less than 2 pounds. Most of the babies in the NICU are preemies. Born well before they were expected, to parents who thought they had plenty of time to paint the nursery and attend the hospital tour, they survive their first days here. Lacking much of their third trimester, they are thrust into the dangerous uncertainty of life. For the new parents, daily customary life has screeched to a halt. Rather than tucking a new baby into the life of a busy family, new fathers and mothers must simply wait. What preemies in the NICU need most is time: time to grow strong and function unaided on the outside.

Those newfangled 3-D ultrasound photos that give an eerie glimpse into the womb pale in comparison to a living, breathing tiny human who, not so many years ago, would not have survived such an early birth. The earliest preemies almost don't look human: They are hairy and skinny rather than rosy and cuddly, with heads the size of an orange. They have various wires and tubes snaking from top to bottom. Some wear blindfolds, like little hostages, which protect their eyes from the jaundice-curing lights. But they have all the fantastic intricacies of their many parts, perfect eyelashes and fingernails and ears. Their design is flawless. In the midst of these tiny valiant lives, it's easy to believe in a benevolent Creator.

The NICU that housed and nurtured my nephew offers a surprising amount of bed space to a steady stream of patients. This demand for NICU care is nationwide: One in nine women in the United States will not carry a pregnancy past 37 weeks. Approximately 100,000 babies each year -- roughly 4 percent of all births -- will need the services and around-the-clock care provided in the NICU. It is an expensive stay. The hospital bill for their portion of their newborn son's two weeks in the NICU may cause my sister and brother-in-law to cringe. But really, is there a more fitting time of life to spend precious health care funds than at the very beginning?

My niece, the new big sister, was able to hold her blinking blue-eyed brother in the NICU, once her parents had provided the staff with her vaccination records, and she had proved that she did not have a fever, and after she washed her hands importantly for 15 seconds. "Hi, yittle guy," she said, kissing his fuzzy head with an audible "mmmaaahhh!" sound. She will someday have dim memories, if any, of being an only child. She is already learning the difficult, intimate give-and-take of being a sibling.

My sister's heart has been in two places at once, in the NICU with her son and at home with her daughter, for whom she wants life to continue as blithely and securely as it was before her brother's birth. She has had to pump her breastmilk religiously so that her supply will be ample to nourish a hungry infant, as well as to be able to bring this important nutrition to the NICU, where her son has been fed through a tube in his nose that goes directly to his stomach.

He was so unprepared at birth that nursing or even sucking on a bottle was too strenuous for him to finish a feeding. As soon as his jaundice was overcome and he could maintain his own body temperature and he no longer needed the nasal feeding tube, he was free to check out of the NICU.

My nephew is home with his family now, 15 long days after his birth. Some of the babies he shared his first days with will inhabit the NICU for another month or longer. Unlike some of the struggles they may have for life, my nephew has no lasting health problems. He will grow, God willing, to sturdy boyhood and manhood. Thanks to the NICU, our family is blessed beyond measure with this newest yittle guy.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at