What It's Like To Have A Premature Baby - The Grace Tales

What It’s Like To Have A Premature Baby

A little over five years ago, I was six months into a complicated pregnancy, on bed rest, praying that my baby would stay put. My body had gone into preterm labour at 23 weeks and I’'d spent my birthday crying and eating cheesecake in bed, which is where I stayed for three months...

Lottie was five in April, and I want to write about my experience of bringing both my girls – Arabella, 7, and Lottie, 5, both premature – into this world because I think it’’s important for other mothers who have had premature babies or might be having issues with their pregnancy to know how hard it is. And no one really gets it because you’’re the one carrying the baby, the one so deeply connected to that little life inside you, that it’’s hard for anyone else to imagine how you’re feeling. When I was pregnant with Lottie and on bed rest, I went through a period of depression and anxiety, then frustration, and then after the birth my health deteriorated after a post-partum hemorrhage, which led to a series of blood transfusions and took me months to recover from. I now have two happy, healthy girls and not a day goes past, even the hard ones where I find mothering exhausting and overwhelming, where I don’t have a moment of quiet gratitude (even if it is after they go to sleep and I’m on the couch with a glass of wine in front of Netflix!).

On bed rest:
When I was 23 weeks pregnant with Lottie, I went to have a scan and they noticed my cervix was abnormally short which meant there was an increased risk of premature labour. The chance of having a stillborn child is high until you get to 28 weeks, where there’s an 80% chance of survival. Given my history, I was injected with steroids to improve the baby’s lung maturity and put straight on bed rest. I turned to Google daily, scanning all the forums trying to predict how long I had before the baby would come. It was all I could do to control the situation – that is, aside from take daily progesterone pessaries. I was terrified I was going to give birth and I felt helpless that I couldn’t control the situation.

I started my maternity leave early and we moved in with my mum and step-dad to get extra help. We rented out our house to pay for the full time nanny we hired to help out with Arabella. All my energetic toddler wanted was for her mummy to run around with her, but I was stuck in bed. I spent the next few weeks in an anxious, depressed state. I passed the days by working on The Grace Tales with episodes of Revenge.

During this time, my friends were my rocks. I’’ll be eternally grateful to them for their support. When you’’re a mother, your friendships become so much deeper. They’’d turn up on my doorstep with treats from my favourite café and sit in the garden with me, legs up. One friend who lives in Hong Kong would call me every other day to cheer me up, despite the fact she had a newborn and was severely sleep deprived. I never knew she was having such a rough time with her baby because she didn’’t mention it – talk about selfless. And I guess I became quite good at staying in bed. My mother was incredible, doing everything for me and supporting me through each day. My husband cheered me up with episodes of House of Cards at night. Slowly, the weeks passed and at 33 weeks, my waters broke. The next day, Lottie arrived and finally, I got out of bed.

On special care:
My first daughter Arabella arrived at 34 weeks in a mad rush. Unlike Lottie, there was no warning, no bed rest, no short cervix. After a complicated birth, which ended with her heart rate dropping and forceps to yank her out, she was taken straight to a table next to me to see if she needed oxygen. I’’d just done a calm birth course where we were taught that the baby must latch on straight after the birth or you wouldn’’t bond (disclaimer: that’’s a load of crap). Arabella was placed on my chest for a quick cuddle and then whisked away to special care and put in an incubator. It was heartbreaking. I was so relieved that she was ok, yet to be separated from your new baby is the strangest feeling in the world. I had to wait until the epidural had worn off before I could get up and see her. I sat in special care an emotional mess. So happy to meet my baby, yet feeling so strange about the fact that my precious bundle was in what looked like a plastic fish tank with a monitor and a mass of wires stuck to her that would sporadically beep. The next two weeks were spent travelling back and forth to the hospital, pumping milk as she was too little to breastfeed and slowly, she moved from an incubator to an open crib and finally we got to take her home.

I feel lucky that both my girls skipped intensive care and only had to go to the special care unit. A lot of the babies in the unit had come from intensive care. The stories were heartbreaking. There were a lot of stories shared in special care and I met some incredibly inspiring women in there. I’’ll never forget them. Each day, there was a lot of laughter and a hell of a lot of tears, as we’d go about our daily routines: check temperature, change nappy, feed, kangaroo care, pump, wash-up and then leave our baby in hospital while we went home and tried not to burst into tears the minute we got into the car. I cried a lot. I was exhausted. My days were spent travelling back and forth to the hospital and pumping around the clock trying to boost my milk supply.

I’’d pass other women in the maternity ward as I came in and out of the special care unit, pushing their chubby full term babies down the corridor or attending bath classes and wish I had my baby with me. Yet at the same time, I also felt so grateful that I had a baby, even if she was tiny.

In the beginning, I was able to have one cuddle a day. I treasured those moments. I’’d try and feed, which wasn’t very successful for the first week as they were too little to develop the sucking reflex, then put them under my top, on my bare chest and give them kangaroo care, a technique practiced on newborns, usually preterm, where the baby is held, skin-to-skin, with an adult. We would sit cuddling, heart to heart. I’’ll remember those cuddles forever. Those squeaky mouse noises both the girls would make were the most magical sounds I’’d ever heard. The nurses would always give me longer than the recommended time. The idea was not to over stimulate the baby as it tires them out and they need to rest and grow.

Then there were the moments when the monitors would start beeping loudly and you’d panic that your baby’’s heart rate was dropping rapidly. Or having raced through the traffic, walk into the nursery to find your baby crying and feel incredibly sad that you weren’t there to comfort them when they woke.

Hand sanitizer became my best friend. I became obsessed with keeping my hands clean. Even after I brought both babies home, I made sure everyone sanitized their hands before touching the babies. It sounds obsessive, but when your baby has been hooked up to a heart rate monitor for weeks, you take germs and the risk of infection pretty seriously.

The nurses were unforgettable. They are the kindest, most caring women you’ll ever meet. They work around the clock caring for the babies (and mothers) in special care.

I still remember being told we could take the girls home –I was overwhelmed with happiness. Perhaps my girls knew what an impatient personality I have and were just teaching me patience from day one. Whatever put them in special care, it was a beautiful moment bringing them home. I might leave out the part about how they both didn’’t sleep for six months –- that’’s a post for another day.

On post-partum hemorrhage:
I still remember the night I started hemorrhaging vividly. It was 1am and I was breastfeeding Lottie in bed. She was six weeks old. It felt like my water’s were breaking. I looked down and it was blood. Half an hour later, I was in an ambulance and rushed to hospital, again separated from my newborn child. The next few days were a blur. I just remember trying to pump milk while getting blood transfusions. I remember having a mild panic attack and announcing to the hospital staff I was leaving, and that I needed to get home to my baby. I started packing my bag and the hemorrhaging started again. Needless to say, I got back in bed and we started another transfusion. I remember my breast pump breaking and my incredible mother running all over Darlinghurst in Sydney on a Friday night to buy a new one for me. My dad and husband at my bedside, telling me it’d be ok. A week later, I was operated on and the bleeding stopped. It took me over a year to recover from that, and to be honest, I don’t think I’’ll ever forget that experience.

Photo: Julie Adams