ORLANDO, Fla. - Zoe Sky Rodriguez entered the world much earlier than anyone expected, at just 25 weeks.
"I was upset. Honestly, I didn't think she would make it," confessed Zoe's mother, Natalie Rivera.
Zoe spent 102 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. Her parents spent hours by her side.
"One picture that resonates with me, and I remember actually, is a picture under the ultra violet lights because of her skin. I have my hand in there and she actually kind of grabbed my pinky," shared Peter Rodriguez, Zoe's father.
Zoe's family is not alone. According to the March of Dimes, for the first time in years, premature births rose nationwide in 2015 from nine percent to just fewer than 10 percent.
Susan Bowles, a clinical nurse specialist who works with preemies at Winnie Palmer Hospital in Orlando, said experts aren't sure why the numbers are climbing, but they want to make sure women know they can reduce some risks.
"First and foremost, when mom has her baby, start planning for the next one. There should be 18 months between pregnancies," Bowles advised.
Baby spacing allows the mother's body to fully recover. Also, if you smoke, stop. Finally, make and keep prenatal doctor's visits.
"I'm passionate about reducing the prematurity birthrate, because for me the day that there’s not a premature baby in the NICU, is the day I retire," Bowles confessed.
Today, Zoe is a spunky two-year-old who loves taking walks with her parents and baby brother, Nico, and shows no signs of her very early start in life.
The March of Dimes recently released its premature birth report card and gave the nation a "C" grade because of the increase. The organization works with prematurity research centers around the country as scientists look for the cause of preterm birth, and develop specific intervention programs.
Allentown, PA 18102