The time is never perfect for having a baby. You will never have enough money, enough time or just the right window in your career to take years off to raise a little one. But nothing can ever sufficiently prepare you for having a premature baby…
Before you enter the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) they warn you about all the tubes and pipes and they do try to explain what each one does, but it is still a shock to see your tiny little person in that state.
Nonetheless, before I carry on with this post, I would like to acknowledge that my experience with a preterm baby could have been much, much worse. I realise that there are mothers out there who had to cope with so much more; a tiny little person who they were not allowed to touch, who could not breathe on their own, who could not breastfeed and who were fighting for survival with every breath that machines pushed into a tiny little body. I was dealt only what I could deal with, because I could not have coped with this experience for longer than the 15 days I had to live it!
We are lucky. Although our baby girl is preterm and rather underweight, she manages to breathe on her own and her sucking reflex is already established, so we can start breastfeeding from day one. I am also very privileged for having liters of milk. There is a slight hiccup on days two and three where her blood sugar suddenly plummets and we struggle to feed, but overall, we are lucky! But just at that point in time, I am not feeling it.
As the days drag by and my baby is not getting discharged, I take some comfort from the “click-click-click” sound made by each of the babies’ apnoea monitors whenever I spend time on the ward. The sound reminds me of the chorus from a certain type of frog in the African bush… It soothes my frayed nerves as I anxiously wait for the announcement that I can “sleep in” that night, meaning that she will be allowed to go home with me the next day.
Slowly you get used to the “lingo” on the ward… baby’s cares, sats, CPAP, naso-gastric tube, EBM, as well as what each of the plethora of tests means and how it impacts your baby (and thus her chances of being discharged!). You smile in empathy with the other mothers and you get to know the nurses pretty well.
Most of the nurses tasked with taking are of these prem babies are incredible! The level of love and commitment they show for other people’s babies are above and beyond what is required. Not only do they have the intense pressure of caring or these babies non-stop while on duty, they also have to play therapist and mental support roles to the parents.
I remember one particular day when everything just overwhelms me. I’m sitting in my little cubicle of curtains and the baby won’t drink for more than 2 minutes without falling asleep and it’s three days before Christmas which we will be spending it in hospital and then a sad song starts to play on the ward radio and I have a private little break-down (only later that day will I remember that it also happens to be my 5th wedding anniversary)! Tears flow down my cheeks and I try to sob quietly. A nurse comes to check up on the feeding and quietly disappears when she sees the state I am in, leaving me alone to deal with my sorrow. And trust me, it takes rather a bit of “dealing with”; this whole ordeal of having a baby in this ward…
It is not the same nurse that looks after your baby every day. Some days you get a good one, some days you get a not so good one…but then, one day, you walk in and you hear the magic words: “Your baby gained 65g over the last 24 hours and the doctor said you could sleep in tonight.” and it doesn’t matter who delivers the message, you want to kiss them!
And then you start to panic: “What if she is being released too early? What if you can’t manage? What if something happens at home and you don’t know how to handle it?” But you look down at you precious little bundle and you just know that the best place for her is in her mother’s arms…
People ask you how you manage to care for such a small baby. “Aren’t you afraid she will break if you pick her up?” Heck, off course you are! You are terrified! But you manage. Because you have to. Because there is nothing else you can do. Because you are a mother and your sole responsibility to that little person is to make sure that he or she is safe and cared-for, even if she arrived earlier than was expected.