I’m sure most people have watched one born every minute, I’ve tuned in for a few minutes here and there and it was enough for me, let’s be honest it scared the bejesus out of me! In my head I had the perfect birth planned; we were doing Hypnobirthing classes, I was reading the positive birth book, it was going to be as natural as possible, calm, I would give birth in water, there would be candles and scented oils. It was planned, it would be perfect.
The reality was a little different. Five weeks before my due date I was just about to sit down to dinner when I felt a slight pulling sensation between my legs. It wasn’t uncomfortable, there was no pain, it just felt strange. I got up to go to the loo just to see what was happening and as I sat down bright red blood rushed out of me. At that same moment my husband started shouting at me, I had left a pool of blood on the sofa and a trail leading to the bathroom. He was understandably concerned.
We immediately called the hospital who said they would send an ambulance. We told them not to worry we were in the car (thankful that we lived so close to the hospital) and on our way to labour ward. We arrived and were seen immediately. They found the baby’s heartbeat and placed me on a mat to monitor the blood loss. This was about 8pm on 19th December. Roll forward a few hours and we’d seen quite a few people, they couldn’t stop the bleeding, they might have to operate. The specifics are a bit of a blur now to be honest, I’m not actually sure I was that with it at the time. After all this wasn’t what I had planned!
At 11pm we got told I had lost too much blood and they had to get bubba out immediately. The whole time I had no pain and could feel him moving about, the heartbeat was strong, it all felt so surreal. He was fine in there, he doesn’t want to come out, he needed to do more growing, I was not ready, why hadn’t I done my hospital bag the previous weekend?! The rush of thoughts that washed over me we’re so confusing, how could this be happening to me? We were taken through the details and risks of the c-section and it all became very real and scary. We were very glad we had managed to have 2 sessions of Hypnobirthing and a couple of NCT sessions which had taken us through some of the details of an emergency c-section including risks and generally what happens. Not that you remember much when you are actually in the moment, but I do think that the Hypnobirthing sessions helped keep us calm and realistic about what was happening. We didn’t panic or get upset, this was the best thing for our baby, so it was going to happen.
My husband was given a gown and a mini shopping trolley for our things. I have to say that was a highlight for both of us and a much-needed moment of light relief! Lots of supermarket sweep jokes and debating if we could smuggle it home as a keepsake.
Our son Nathan was born just after midnight on 20th December. We heard him cry loud and strong so we were both elated. Unfortunately, it was short lived as he struggled to breathe independently and was whisked away to intensive care. They brought him near my head but my glasses were wonky so I didn’t really get to see him.
I have to say I didn’t feel like I had given birth. Don’t get me wrong I was uncomfortable and I knew that the baby was out, but it didn’t feel real. I felt like I had a bubble around my head and everything was just slightly cloudy. I was somewhere else. My husband had gone to special care with Nathan and came back to see me in recovery with a lovely video taken a few minutes after he was born and a few of him in the incubator. I didn’t feel that rush of love that people talk about, I just felt scared.
Special care doesn’t get talked about, that’s not covered off in books or in the classes, no one tells you what that means and what happens next. I ended up in a side room where I said goodbye to my husband and sent him off home to bed and to pick up some items for me (Note to self, if I do this again pack hospital bag before 35 weeks!). I felt hollow sending him off, but I knew I needed to as he desperately needed sleep and something to eat! I knew I needed to rest and would need things tomorrow. Still, I felt empty and so alone when he left.
My little wriggly companion was no longer kicking me, my stomach just felt tender and I didn’t know where he was, who was with him or how he was doing. My mind went into overdrive about what could be happening: Would they tell us if he got worse? Would they know where I was? Would they call my husband or just come and get me? I was pretty sure I couldn’t walk so then started to freak out about how I would get to him if he needed me. In the end I must have passed out.
I woke the following day with the same anxieties, but also still feeling like he wasn’t mine. It was such a horrible feeling. It just broke my heart to not be able to see my own baby or touch him. We ended up being able to see him the next day, but he was wired up and we were only allowed to open up the side of the incubator for a short time as he needed such high oxygen. My hands were allowed through the small circles to touch his tiny hands and feet. But I just felt so numb, so cheated, I still do if I’m honest. I know perfect births are quite rare, but something slightly less intense and emotional would have been the preference!
To try and describe my emotions at this point is tricky, I was staying strong for my baby, but I was physically broken and had enough hormones running around to power the national grid. Having to walk away from him and be wheeled back to my room was devastating. All I wanted to do was hold my baby, and for someone to tell me it would all be ok.
The next day Nathan took another turn for the worst and had to be fully incubated as his lungs were underdeveloped. When you see your tiny baby with a massive tube coming out of his mouth you feel sick. Seeing my tiny boy like this took another level of strength I didn’t know I had.
The hospital I gave birth in doesn’t have a room dedicated to Mums whose babies are in special care and therefore not with them so you are generally in with pregnant ladies who are booked in for elective or planned c-sections. It means us mums without our babies don’t have to suffer the pain of hearing other mums with their babies. Unfortunately, when the wards get busy they have to use every bed and I ended up with two mums and babies in my block of rooms. Every time a baby cried a tiny piece of my heart broke that my baby wasn’t with me. I felt like my body had failed me, it couldn’t keep my son safe inside me for the right amount of time. It’s something I’ve almost come to terms with now, a year later, but it’s been a long road of self-love and I’m not totally there yet.
The rush of hormones from seeing my baby in the flesh and touching him even just with my hands had enabled my body to do the most natural thing in the world and produce milk. Only slight issue was that I couldn’t touch or feed my baby myself which is something I knew I wanted to try and do. Looking back now, although I know breastfeeding really was the best thing for him, I did push myself too hard with it. I think we put too much pressure on mothers these days, whatever they choose. Had I chosen formula I would be frowned upon by some, and breastfeeding, by others, I really wish as mothers we would support each other more. I personally chose to breastfeed, but then had the pressure of producing enough milk for my baby without being in the same room as him. That meant hospital grade pumps and getting up every 3hrs in the night, even when home from the hospital, to pump and ensure supply. It’s a pretty dark time at 3am when you are pumping for a baby who you haven’t held, it feels pointless at times and at others you can’t stop crying because you haven’t held him yet.
I was desperate to hold him, my body ached to have him in my arms and we were told possibly the next day, but they would have to see. Obviously, you are polite to people and nod and agree, but inside you just want to grab your baby and run.
I didn’t get to hold Nathan until late Christmas Eve, a full four days after he was born. I can’t explain the rush of emotions I had on holding him. Like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, that rush of love was there. It came. I wasn’t completely broken. We had reached the next stage and he was off the ventilator, but not totally out of the woods.
The day soon came when we had to leave the hospital without our son. We didn’t carry a car seat to the car with us, happy and nervous with our new bundle. We had to leave him, in a glass box, hooked up to wires and machines that beeped and alarmed. It still makes me well up now. Hand on heart one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I can’t imagine the strength it takes to leave the hospital following the loss of a baby and I know we are truly very blessed to have been able to take our bundle away eventually.
We were very lucky that the staff in Stoke Mandeville NICU were amazing, like a family. They really helped us and held our hands literally and figuratively through all the ups and downs. I think also because we were there over the Christmas period it meant event more that they treated us like family. We knew that he was in great hands and they would look after him. I was even able to call them through the night to see how he was doing, it made it easier when I was up pumping for milk to know how he was. They are a very special team of people who will always hold a big place on my heart.
On Christmas Day we got to the ward early as usual. We were greeted to a lovely sight of him wearing a knitted Christmas pudding hat and there was a package from “Santa”. The lovely charity, BURPS, had got him his first Christmas presents. We weren’t expecting him to be here so we had nothing for him. It was such a lovely gesture and one that meant so much to us. Whoever thought of it is a truly wonderful person, it made our day.
Typically, we would visit Nathan three times a day, you can visit whenever you like in the NCIU. It makes it so much easier knowing you can go in and see your baby at any time. Sometimes we went in late at night after dinner, just to sit with him, like we would do if we had taken him home. We tried to time our visits with the times he would need a little clean up or a feed so we could get used to his tiny body. He was tube fed initially as he was born too early to have developed the sucking reflex in the womb. I still had to produce enough breast milk to keep up with his demand and at times if I was pumping at home and couldn’t see him or touch him, I would get a very low yield. It used to really stress me out as I felt like it was one of the only things I could do for him. Now I wish I hadn’t been so hard on myself, but I think motherhood and parenting actually is very much like that. We are constantly second guessing our choices and trying to work out what to do for the best. Beating ourselves up for going back to work or formula feeding or whatever it is that day that has got you questioning yourself and feeling guilty. I hadn’t realised those emotions would be so prevalent in my day to day life. It’s one of the major changes since having Nathan and one I think you probably never get used to!
This brings me nicely onto breastfeeding a prem baby, I’m pretty sure it’s actually quite tricky for all mums who decide to do it, but this is my experience. Let’s start at the beginning and make a few things clear. Hand expressing is a skill, and not an easy one when you have boobs that are the size of melons and hard as rocks! (My milk had come in, but where I hadn’t been able to hold Nathan they hadn’t actually yielded anything so all that milk was just sat there!) The amazing postnatal team showed us what to do and gave us mini syringes to collect.
I have to say, I didn’t think that the first few days after giving birth I would be on a hospital ward without my baby, with my husband holding a syringe to try and collect the few drops of milk that my rocks would give up. It was agony and bliss all at the same time. They were so painful and tender, but every drop we got for him was celebrated and felt like a huge achievement. To know that my baby was going to get the milk my body produced, tailored for him to help him on his healing journey, made the pain worth it. Let’s face it, you would walk over hot coals to get to your baby and with mine downstairs on a ventilator there wasn’t much I could do to help so this was my contribution.
We really struggled with breastfeeding, I was very lucky to have lots of hands on experience whilst on the ward, but also after we were discharged, I attended clinics. We really struggled though, he didn’t open his mouth very wide, I couldn’t work out what technique worked for me. He lost weight whilst on the ward after the birth so I felt a huge amount of pressure to get him back to birth weight and we were combi feeding (expressed milk in bottles and breastfeeding). I still didn’t feel confident so about 3 weeks later we found a wonderful local lady who came to the house to watch feeds.
Looking back, I think a lot was confidence and understanding what worked for us. Everyone seemed to have slightly different advice and working out what worked for us was the most important step. I don’t think I became truly confident with it until about 2 months after giving birth. By that point I was able to feed in public without feeling embarrassed or worrying about showing too much flesh.
I found these amazing Facebook groups which have saved my sanity (and my wardrobe) so many times. One was somewhere you could explain what was happening with feeding and lactation experts would offer advice, invaluable when you’ve had a rough night! The other was mums posting clothes that you can breastfeed in. The main point being that they didn’t have to be ugly nursing specific tops which were also made for a pregnant belly so are not flattering at all, they can be button down shirts, or v neck dresses. Outfits to make you feel like “you” again!
As we got past Christmas and managed a couple of trips to see family Nathan started to get stronger. We never asked when he would be able to come home, although it seemed to be all anyone asked us. We had both agreed we didn’t want to get our hopes up one day only to be told the next we couldn’t. We headed towards New Year and it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to breastfeed Nathan whilst not being with him 24/7 so we made the decision that I would stay with him.
There were two rooms at the hospital, one single and one family room. On the 29th I spent my first night alone with my son, all be it in a hospital with nurses just down the hall! We then spent the second night and New Year’s Eve in the family room, all tucked up in bed by 11 as we were shattered! On New Year’s Day 2018 we were able to take our bundle of joy home. It felt amazing to start the new year being able to take our son home. We’ve had a few bumps along the road since bringing him home, but nothing serious and that is the main thing.
We will never forget the kindness we were shown by all the workers in the NCIU and the labour ward when we were really struggling. They are truly amazing people and we will never be able to repay them for all that they did for our little family.