7 things to know about having a premature baby

Today marks World Prematurity Day [Photo: Getty]
Today marks World Prematurity Day [Photo: Getty]

Sitting in our NCT class as the instructor passed round pictures of tiny premature babies in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), I looked on in empathetic ambivalence. Even though I was expecting twins and therefore classed as high-risk, my pregnancy had passed by complication-free, so with any luck that wouldn’t happen to me.

But it did. At 33 weeks + 6 days pregnant, I went into spontaneous labour, even though my scheduled c-section wasn’t for at least another month.

At the hospital and wired up to monitors, I was told twin two’s heart rate was dropping dangerously low. They needed to deliver the babies urgently under an emergency caesarean for which I would have to undergo a general anaesthetic.

Forty-five minutes later and as I woozily came round I was told I was mum to a girl and a boy who were just 4lb 3 and 3lb 8 respectively.

Whisked off in an incubator to the SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit), it was a full 12 hours before I was wheeled in to see my teeny babies and three weeks before the twins were well enough to come home.

Having a premature baby, or in my case babies, isn’t something most mums-to-be prepare for. But with one in 13 babies being born prematurely in the UK and more than 60,000 babies born premature every year in Britain, the chances of delivering your baby pre-term could be higher than you think.

Thankfully though the medical advances in premature baby care have been so advance that more than 90% of premature babies who weigh 800 grams or more (a little less than 2lb) survive.

Today is World Prematurity Day and to mark it I’ve put together my guide of things I wish I’d known about having a baby in the SCBU or NICU.

Preemie babies aren’t just small

Babies are classified as premature if they are born before 37 weeks gestation. A normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks. At the extreme end, some babies born very early at 24 weeks gestation or before. But, babies born prematurely aren’t just small, they can often face on-going health challenges including problems with development, feeding and breathing. My own babies were healthy overall, but hadn’t yet developed the muscles and skill to be able to suck, so they were tube fed for the first week or so of their lives. Doctors had inserted a nasogastric (NG) tube through the twins’ noses which went into their tummies so they could be fed small amounts of special preemie formula or expressed breast milk.

We were surprised at how often the twins had to feed, but premature babies often need to feed more frequently than full-term babies because they only take in a small amount at every feed.

It can be a shock when you see your premature baby for the first time [Photo: Getty]
It can be a shock when you see your premature baby for the first time [Photo: Getty]

It’s a shock when you see them for the first time

I’ll never forget setting eyes on the twins for the first time. My daughter did look like a ‘normal’ newborn, granted a very teeny one, but my son looked more like a little bird, or alien. With bulgy eyes and spindly legs, he looked so fragile and I was scared touching him might actually hurt him. But in fact premature babies prefer a firm rather than feather touch. Your instinct will likely be to stroke your baby gently, but premature babies can be sensitive to touch. They actually prefer a firm hand on their back or a strong figure hold to gentle feathery touches. I remember thinking this was odd when the nurses explained to us, but when you consider they should still be snuggled in your tummy it sort of makes sense.

The beeps aren’t necessarily anything to worry about

When the nurse asked me if I’d like to change my son’s first nappy, I almost fainted at the stress of it all. Not only did I worry I might actually snap one of his tiny bones, but the machines beeps went into overdrive when I tried to unbutton his vest. I looked at the nurse in anxious panic, but she reassured me all was fine. Gradually we learnt that the beeps weren’t always an indication that something was drastically wrong.

Not everyone will get to visit your baby

Preterm babies aren’t able to fight bugs easily, so they are prone to infections during and after birth. So don’t be surprised if the NICU limits visitors to parents only. Our own parents were desperate to get a glimpse of their first grandchildren, and though we felt frustrated at the time, the rule is there to protect your baby. You’ll also need to be meticulous about washing your hands before you touch your baby to limit the risk of exposing your baby to germs. In the NICU, it’s required of all staff and visitors upon arrival and you soon get used to sticking to it religiously.

Don’t be surprised if your baby sleeps a lot

Premature babies tend to sleep even more than full-term newborns, up to 22 hours per day. But as they need to fill their tiny tummies it is usually only for an hour or so at a time. The type of sleep they get is different too. Preterm babies spend less time in deep sleep and are rarely fully awake and alert. When our twins were eventually able to take a bottle we’d often find them so drowsy they couldn’t finish the whole thing and would need to be tube fed the rest.

[Photo: Getty]
[Photo: Getty]

Your first cuddle will be scary but amazing

You may worry your baby will break if you pick him up or touch him, but even tiny preemies are stronger than you think. And in fact, depending on the health of your baby you’ll likely be encouraged to practice something known as kangaroo parenting, so called because it involves putting your baby down your nightie or shirt for maximum skin to skin contact. Research proves the practice can be hugely beneficial for your baby not only because your body heat will warm them, but also because it offers comfort for him or her to hear the heart beat of its parents. Plus it offers you a precious chance to bond. I still remember how nervous I was holding the twins for the very first time, but once I got used to it, I never wanted to put them back in their incubator. Try not to be frightened of the wires sticking out, the nurses will be there to guide you.

You’ll be terrified when you leave

I don’t have the words to explain how amazing the nurses and doctors who looked after our preemie twins were. Not only were they there to provide medical care to literally ensure our babies survived, but they actively taught us how to look after them. And provided the vital support when we had a tearful wobble about the trauma of the whole process. Though we were thrilled the twins were fit and strong enough to come home after three weeks, we were terrified we wouldn’t be able to look after them on our own and without the on-hand advice of the staff. You get so used to being told when to change their nappy and when to feed them that you wonder if you’ll remember what to do at home. But enough of what we’d learnt had sunk in and somehow we muddled by.

The above is based purely on my own experiences and I know that some parents of premature babies won’t feel the same, so for more information about SCBU and NICU care visit Tommy’s.

Share your experiences of having a baby in NICU or SCBU @YahooStyleUK

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