Carefully minding the assortment of tubes and wires, Josh Thurman lifted his infant daughter from her crib and cradled her against his bare chest.

Lillian Grace, all 7 pounds of her, squirmed and squawked.

She loves her daddy. And she is just his pride and joy.

Lisa Thurman

“It’s OK, sweetie,” Thurman said as he patted her back.

Lillian, wearing only a diaper, snuggled in and grew calm, enjoying skin-to-skin time with her daddy.

Fathers have long been encouraged to share skin-to-skin time with their preemies, and in recent years their interest has grown, said Jason Powell, a physical therapist in the neonatal intensive care unit at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

That bonding moment is as vital for fathers as it is for mothers.

“Dads are equal members of the family,” Powell said. “The baby can build strong attachments with him, which are important for their overall well-being and future.”

Thurman welcomed the opportunity from the day his daughter arrived—Feb. 12. Born at 25 weeks gestation, Lillian weighed a mere 1 pound, 6 ounces.

She has spent her first 118 days in the hospital. Mom or dad has held her, bare skin to bare skin, almost every day.

“It feels good, really good,” Thurman said. “It’s a nice bonding time.”

He leaned back in a recliner, draped the sides of his shirt around Lillian and gently jostled her. She slept, curled against his chest.

In addition to bonding with parents, skin-to-skin time helps babies handle uncomfortable or painful procedures, Powell said. When preemies get a heel poke or airway suctioning, they show their displeasure, even if they can’t cry. Their arms and legs wiggle and their skin turns red or blotchy.

But when those procedures are done while they are held by their parents, the babies show far less distress.

Thurman and his wife, Lisa, both physician assistants, also were impressed by research showing preemies who get skin-to-skin care make better progress in neurological development and reaching key milestones.

And those peaceful moments rocking Lillian benefit mom and dad, as they spend their first days as new parents in a hospital environment.

“It’s one part of our day that makes this experience feel normal,” Lisa said.

‘His pride and joy’

Lisa and Josh Thurman met at Grand Valley State University and married in 2010. They went to physician assistant school together in Philadelphia and moved to Muskegon, Michigan, in 2012.

In September 2015, they learned they were expecting a baby. The pregnancy went smoothly until week 25, when Lisa developed a life-threatening complication known as HELLP syndrome. An extreme form of preeclampsia, it involves hemolysis (H), a breakdown of red blood cells; elevated liver enzymes (EL) and low platelet count (LP).

“You can’t do bed rest with it,” Lisa said. “The cure is to deliver the placenta. It’s like the placenta is attacking the host. Not only does it attack the mom, it attacks the infant as well. It cuts off their nutrition.”

For 48 hours, she took medication to speed up the baby’s lung development. And then she delivered Lillian by cesarean section at the Spectrum Health Family Birthplace at Butterworth Hospital.

Lillian spent her first days in the Small Baby Unit, a specialized unit of the NICU for babies born before 27 weeks.

Her eyes were still fused shut. She couldn’t open them for almost two weeks. Over time, her eyelashes and eyebrows came in.

“All the things that develop in utero, we got to watch,” said Karen Tucker, Lillian’s grandmother.

Lillian remained on a ventilator for 45 days to help her breathe.

The first time her parents could hold her bare skin to bare skin, she was 8 days old. Her weight had dropped to 1 pound, 3 ounces. She measured less than 12 inches long―shorter than a ruler.

It’s another way for us to help her. It feels fulfilling in that regard. Good bonding. And it’s calming.

Josh Thurman

“You didn’t even feel like you had anything on you,” Lisa said.

Now, she and Josh marvel at their baby girl, with her chubby thighs and double chin. Blue-eyed and brown-haired, Lillian takes after Dad.

“She loves her daddy,” Lisa said. “And she is just his pride and joy.”

Lions and Tigers

Thurman always planned to be a hands-on dad. He looks forward to playing with Lillian, teaching her to play softball, and just following her interests.

He sees skin-to-skin time as just one more way to nurture and care for her. As he cuddles Lillian, he informs her about the Lions and Tigers. In May, he kept her updated on the NFL draft picks.

As he spoke, Lillian’s eyes opened and she looked up toward her dad.

“It’s another way for us to help her,” he said. “It feels fulfilling in that regard. Good bonding. And it’s calming.”