When you find out that you’re pregnant you start to dream. You dream about what your pregnancy is going to be like and quickly realise that you aren’t actually glowing radiantly, but feeling fat and waddling like a duck whenever you walk anywhere. You dream about what kind of birth you’re going to have and realise that the plan pretty much goes out of the window when you actually go into labour. You also dream about the early days with your baby. You dream about the cuddles. You dream about feeding them. You dream about putting them in the cute little outfits you’ve bought for them. You dream about bringing them home when they’re a day or two old.
Two and a half years ago my first child arrived early. Six weeks early to be precise. He was whisked away from me in the delivery ward to the Neonatal Unit and the angels there took very special care of him. As a first time parent this was not what I’d imagined at all.
Life enters another dimension when you enter the Neonatal Unit. It’s a world of scary looking machinery and feeling utterly helpless. It’s a world of dimmed lights and a complete ignorance of what’s going on in the real world. It’s a cocoon. It’s a virtual cuddle. The staff don’t just provide the best care in the world for the helpless little squirming infant that has appeared in your life, but also for the entire family around it. Little B spent two weeks in the Neonatal Unit in 2012. We were incredibly lucky as he didn’t have any health problems. He was just born too soon and too small and had to spend time growing and learning to feed as he didn’t have a sucking reflex when he was born.
At the time, the two weeks we spent in the unit seemed like two years. The days passed so slowly and I felt completely trapped; I referred to it as ‘baby prison’ or the ‘cave’. The days passed in a blur of completing his cares (nappies and washing), feeding him through his nasal-gastric tube and expressing milk for his next feed. You get into a little routine that repeats itself every few hours. We learned that there were hurdles to be jumped before we could escape and every time we achieved something new it felt like we’d completed some kind of marathon. The first cuddle, moving from an incubator into a cot, holding his temperature without a heated mattress, expressing enough milk for a whole feed and not having to rely on formula, an hour without his monitors beeping, giving him his first bath, him actually waking for a feed rather than staying asleep, him staying awake for a feed, him managing to latch on and have a feed from me, the first day of me feeding him without using his tube and eventually hearing the best words in the world ‘you can go home’, closely followed by the nagging thought of ‘are we ready/ is he ready’ and the guilt of leaving others on the unit who’ve been there far longer than you.
When I was pregnant, people told me that yes, the birth would be painful, but I would completely forget it. It’s true, you do. But it wasn’t just the birth I’d put out of my mind. Until I became pregnant again, I had pretty much put the time in the neonatal unit out of my mind. It sat there in the recesses of my mind as a little memory of a time which I treasured as I got to know little B, but also as an experience that made me stronger – you never know what you can cope with until you actually have to cope with it. Not necessarily an experience I wanted to repeat, but one that I knew had changed me in some way.
During my most recent pregnancy I was monitored far more closely than the first time and it was always clear that there was a fairly high chance we would be plunged into the unit again. I mentally prepared myself and imagined myself back in the unit going through the motions of the daily routine and made plans for Little B to stay with various family members as needed. Part of me was in denial and began to dream of bringing home my second born after a short stay in the maternity ward. This was not to be and, eight weeks before my due date having mentally prepared myself for the local NICU, due to a shortage of beds (that should really be cots or rather a shortage of staff to adequately support the babies in those cots) I was transferred, whilst in labour, to another NICU which was a twenty minute drive away from our home. We counted our lucky stars that we were only 20 minutes away as there had been a plan to send me to Boston in Lincolnshire which is significantly further away.
It’s amazing how quickly you get used to the routines all over again. The staff greet you like a long lost friend and envelope you in care and the virtual cuddle as soon as you walk in the door each morning. As I sat beside the bed of Baby T little memories would seep into my consciousness and I begun to remember little things. I’d forgotten that the babies are all so quiet, lungs that aren’t fully matured can’t yell so much! They all sound like little animals; Baby T growls like a lion cub, Little A in the cot next door sounds like a sheep and in the room next door there’s a little monkey! I’d forgotten about the complete lack of privacy; although the staff try to have hushed conversations, every little sound travels through a curtain. I’d forgotten that you feel so helpless when they’re carrying out a procedure on the baby in the cot next to yours and their parents aren’t there to comfort them and you’re not allowed to – for the record, I’d want someone holding Baby T’s hand if I weren’t there. I’d forgotten how confused I got on a daily basis by the day counting system – on the unit, day 1 is their first day of life, rather than one day old. I’d forgotten how warm it is and how many times a day you wash your hands – hygiene is king and my hands are cracked from washing them so much. I’d forgotten how many times you have the same conversation – each ward round is accompanied by a cohort of new faces and the story of your child’s short life is told and re-told so many times – you almost feel like telling the doctor to put the file away and you’ll introduce your baby yourself. I’d forgotten how you hate leaving them in the evening, even though you know they’re being really well cared for while you’re gone. I’d forgotten how guilty you feel when you grab an evening out with friends during that period between your baby being born and finally being allowed home. I’d forgotten how vile the vitamins smell and how much they stain anything they’re accidently spilled on. I’d forgotten how every drop of expressed breast milk is worth its weight in gold and how upset you become when even one drop gets spilled. I’d forgotten how odd it was to wake to the sound of your alarm reminding you to get up and express milk rather than the sound of a hungry baby. I’d forgotten the pleasure of kangaroo care; nothing else to do but sitting and cuddling the little one whilst watching the rest of the unit go about its business. I’d forgotten how much they feed when their feeding tube finally comes out and they can suddenly demand for mummy to feed them rather than waiting for their designated time slot with a nurse.
There are some differences this time. It’s easier. Whether that’s because we’re second time parents and we vaguely know what we’re doing or because we’ve experienced a neonatal until before, I’m not sure. I think it also helped that all of this happened over Christmas as Little B seemed oblivious to the fact that Mummy and Daddy kept disappearing off to the hospital to see Baby T as he had his cousins and new toys to play with so, although I’d been worried that he’d feel abandoned, I think the opposite has happened and he’s enjoyed the novelty of the situation. The fact that there was another little person outside of the hospital to worry about gave me a bit more perspective about the whole situation – this time there’s a life outside the unit so everything seems less scary and absorbing than it did last time.
Past experience has taught me that the wait wouldn’t seem as long as it felt and that I’ll forget the majority of the events once I leave and get to take Baby T home, but I want to remember. That’s partly why I’m writing this blog post. As my dear old granny used to say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. She was so right, it’s amazing what you can cope with when you have to. I want to be able to look back and say ‘We survived that, we coped’. It might not be what I dreamed of, but having been through it with both of my babies, this is what’s normal for me and has made me and my babies stronger for the experience. We wouldn’t have coped without our wonderful families and the NICU staff.
We take it for granted, but the NHS is amazing and we’re incredibly lucky to have it.