It is estimated that 1 in every 13 babies born in the UK arrive prematurely (before 37 weeks). With such high statistics it is no wonder that our NHS provides hospitals with Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), who give these tiny babies the highest quality of care around the clock. Our baby was premature – here’s the story of Sam’s birth.
Not all babies who are born premature need to be in the NICU, and due to the advances in medical equipment, most babies only stay for a number of weeks. Neonatal mortality rates have continuously declined since the 1980’s. But even though the statistics are usually stacked in your baby’s favour, it doesn’t make the NICU experience any less of a rollercoaster on your emotions.
A difficult pregnancy and birth
My pregnancy with Sam was my most difficult journey to date. Besides the fact that our baby was premature, it was a daily struggle from the moment we saw the positive pregnancy test. Only four months before conceiving Sam, I had delivered my daughter at 36 weeks knowing she would be stillborn. The decision to try again so soon was not an easy one to make. But me and my partner needed something to focus on through our grief. All through my pregnancy with Sam the mantra was “This baby will be born alive”. We had to drill this into our heads, even though deep down we didn’t dare get our hopes up, but we would not admit that to each other.
I went into hospital at 33 weeks as I was having unbearable pain in my lower abdomen across my previous C-section scar, and initially we were afraid it could be opening internally. First I went for a scan. When I looked at the screen I could see my placenta had white speckles across it, which I knew meant it was “maturing” or coming to the end of its life. I put all the symptoms together, the placenta, the pain, the less frequent movements and made my plea to the consultant that this baby needed to come out now. In the end I told him my story and said, “you owe me a baby don’t you dare ignore me again”. With tears in his eyes he wasn’t going to argue, he was so empathetic to my desperation.
Our baby was premature and delivered by emergency C-section
Sam was delivered the next day by emergency C-section at 33 weeks. The 30 seconds I was lay there motionless waiting for him to let out a cry felt like minutes had went by. Then the nurse exclaimed “He weighs 5lb 5!”. Wait, what? I was so thankful for such a healthy weight, I knew that would stand him in good health on the NICU, and that it meant his lungs were most likely to be decent.
The staff took him to the unit straight away. They told us this before the C-section, as it would take time to get him on a ventilator to help him breath. As it was so late in the evening by the time they took me up onto the ward they told me I wouldn’t be able to go see him until the morning. I wasn’t about to argue with this, as I knew there was no way I’d even be able to wiggle my legs for another few hours.
After about 10 minutes a midwife came to me with a photo of Sam now that he had settled in his incubator. I was astonished that they had taken the time out to do this. I know how busy the maternity wards always are. It was totally unexpected and was just the start of the kind gestures we received from the staff.
Getting acquainted with the NICU
My partner Paul went down to see Sam that evening to take some pictures. And he learnt about the equipment and various wires and tubes that kept our son alive. The hospital let parents, grandparents, and any siblings into the unit 24/7 which is amazingly helpful. This allowed us to organise visits around our other children, work commitments etc.
The next morning, I was wheeled down to meet Sam for the first time, apart from the brief glimpse I got of him during the section. I can’t describe the emotions, if you have had children then you know what I mean, it is a different level of love. Paul started giving me the “tour of Sam” and his little area. It was the most upbeat I had seen him since we lost our daughter. He was finally a dad and jumped straight into his role with pride.
There were so many wires and components that did different jobs and read different measurements. I was unsure how I would remember all this, my memory is terrible! They make is easier by making the wires different colours, and he had a massive chart and folder detailing his progress numerous times a day. You can look at these whenever you like and ask as many questions as you need. I took full advantage of this as I like to be in the know about every little detail!
A birthday by the incubator
Of course, we were there every day. Our families were so selfless. They picked up the childcare of my other children and ran us all around like celebrities. On Sam’s third day in NICU it was my birthday. I just wanted to spend the whole day at the hospital. When we arrived, there was a handmade card from Sam on his incubator which said Happy Birthday Super Mum. They had also personalised a little diary with his name on the front and put his handprints and footprints inside. These little gestures make it that little bit easier to get through the day, when you know that later you have to go home with no baby, again and again.
Slowly but surely, the wires became less and less. You are able to hold him more and more, and you start to feel more in control. The biggest accomplishment for me was when we could take the feeding tube out of his nose. It was a relief to feed him through a bottle. This is something I had wanted to do from the day he was born. To relax in a chair and hold onto my baby, while he gets milk drunk with his milky chops.
It was like learning to feed a baby all over again, nothing like with my other full-term children. There were many times I felt frustrated and a failure because he couldn’t take his milk properly. There was a baby next to us who was born earlier than Sam. He took his bottles perfectly from the word go. I remember sitting there sulking and blaming myself.
At about three weeks in we walked into NICU over to Sam’s area. And there was a handmade certificate hung above his cot which said, “Sam had his first full feed”. I started to laugh as the realised how mardy I had been the last few days. I am the most impatient person, and the babies either side of Sam had already gone home. It made everything seem much slower for me. I had a quiet little word with Sam when nobody was listening. “right stop making me look mental now ok? I know you like the nurses and drink your bottle for them, but we want to take you home”. It didn’t work. It was another week before he could come home. He just really liked all the attention he was getting!
Finally, after four weeks, Sam could come home. My other children had just gone away on holiday for the week as it was the summer. This was perfect timing, meaning me and Paul could have some quality bonding time with Sam. When I packed up all his bits at the hospital it was quite emotional. When we turned off the heart monitor, we realised it was now up to us to be his monitors. Trying to find something for his to wear was a challenge, everything was massive! It would seem ok until you picked him up and you would fully lose him inside the baby grow!
We placed him in his car seat which made him look ridiculously small. And then we took him around to say thanks and goodbye. We walked towards the main exit doors with massive grins on our faces. Sam didn’t have a clue what was going off or how special and loved he is. He was also unaware that as soon as we got home I had a months’ worth of cuddles and kisses to make up for!
On behalf of my whole family I would like to thank all the staff who work at the NICU at Derby Royal Hospital. They care for the babies as if they are their own children. And go out of their way to keep families involved in their baby’s care. They do things which are above and beyond their job description and pay packet. They help to make every families’ journey with a premature baby that little bit easier. I know not every baby has it as easy and smooth sailing as Sam did. If you know anybody struggling emotionally, physically, or financially due to the birth of a premature baby, please gently direct them to Bliss. Their impact and research is completely focussed on you and your baby’s quality of life.
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