Mothers of Premature Babies Need More Support
Expecting a baby is a time filled with hope and anticipation.
You begin to plan. You ‘nest’, decorating the nursery, buying cribs, buggies and tiny baby grows.
You prepare. Packing your hospital bag, finalising birth plans and saying goodbye to work colleagues as you begin your maternity leave.
When my waters broke at 29+6 weeks I was not prepared. Within moments all the excitement and anticipation of my final trimester was shattered. I was rushed to hospital and my son was born a couple of hours later. My introduction to parenthood was one of waiting for six long minutes as the paediatric team resuscitated my baby. I caught a glimpse of him as he was placed in an incubator and rushed away to neonatal intensive care.
I had become a mum, but my baby was gone.
Neonatal intensive care, not a place you’d stumble across, is an alien medical environment. Babies are housed within the safety of their incubators, attached to wires, breathing tubes and life support machines.
My baby spent eight weeks in neonatal care.
Eight weeks where I visited him everyday. Eight weeks where everyday I would have to say goodbye and leave the hospital empty armed. I grieved for the time we had lost together, for my final trimester. I grieved for the lost time to plan and prepare. I grieved for the mother I had not been able to become.
Bonding with a baby in neonatal intensive care is hard and for weeks I did not feel like my baby belonged to me. Feeding was scheduled around a strict timetable and was something that was ‘done’ to my baby. 1ml, 2ml, 5ml, 10ml – tiny amounts of milk was fed through his nasogastric tube into his tummy and although it was my expressed breast milk I was not the one feeding my baby. Nappy changes, also done according to a timetable, were done via incubator portholes. A frightening experience at the best of times, I would lift stick thin legs weighing so little I could barely feel them while contending with a host of tangled medical wires and lines.
The beeps and alarms of the machines caring for our babies becomes the soundtrack to neonatal intensive care and five years later the beep, beep, beep of a monitor can transfer me straight back to that environment.
You see, parenting in neonatal intensive care is tough and it takes time for mothers to be able to bond with their babies; but this is a journey lasts long after you come home.
Evidence tells us that 2 in 5 mums experience mental health difficulties following neonatal intensive care, with 40% developing post-natal depression and more than half experiencing anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And yet, despite this evidence, the world of neonatal intensive care is seldom spoken about and parents, just like me, become isolated and afraid of speaking about their feelings.
I wasn’t able to turn to the usual avenues of support. Mum and baby groups made me want to run a mile, with the inevitable questions about my babies start in life becoming too painful; and health visitor clinics filled me with fear, waiting alongside other ‘huge’ new born babies when my own baby hadn’t yet reached his due date.
I began The Smallest Things, a campaign to raise awareness of premature babies and life beyond neonatal intensive care, in 2014. My son had just turned three and the lasting effects of neonatal care were still with us. I had realised, finally, that I was not alone – in fact, for a NICU mum I was quite normal! Other mothers felt exactly the same way as I did; guilt, anger, grief. Unable to access mum and baby groups. Isolated. Fearful of coughs and colds that could land our children back in hospital. After three years I had found my community, a group of parents who truly understood, a group of parents who together would help raise awareness of a journey that needs more recognition and of mothers who need more support.
For more information please visit Catriona’s blog The Smallest Things
Founder – The Smallest Things