Parents usually have nine months to prepare for the birth of their new baby, however a growing number of babies are being born much earlier than expected… we take a look at the effect on the families involved.
In the final stages of pregnancy, most parents have gathered the necessary equipment to care for their newborn baby and are putting the final touches to the nursery. However, for many expectant parents the experience can be quite different…
The UK has the highest rate of premature births recorded in Europe, with approximately 1 in 8 effected. However, advances in neonatal care mean that babies are able to survive earlier outside the womb, with babies born as premature as 22 weeks now having better chances of survival than ever.
Premature babies are classified as those born prior to 37 weeks. In some cases, for example multiple births, the early arrival may have been expected, but for others those first contractions can come as a complete shock. Tanja and Jason’s son, Cassius, was born at 27 weeks. Tanja describes the onset of her labour:
“We were in Marks and Spencer shopping for food when I had some gripey pains. At the time I didn’t really think much of it, but the next morning when I woke up my pyjamas were a bit damp. I still didn’t really think it was anything important, but we decided to phone the hospital to check. They asked me to come in just to make sure everything was okay.”
[quote_right]“We were in Marks and Spencer shopping for food when I had some gripey pains.”[/quote_right]
“The doctor told me that she was probably going to send me home to put my feet up, but that she’d like to examine me first. When she did, she discovered that I was already 3½ centimetres dilated. Jason had gone to park the car and when he came back, he was told that his wife was in the delivery suite.”
The reasons behind premature birth are not entirely clear. There are some factors which can make early delivery more likely, such as pre-eclampsia, extreme stress, smoking and excessive drinking during pregnancy. However, in many cases there are no apparent reasons at all.
Being born early is life threatening for a baby and can affect their long term development. Naturally, this is extremely distressing for the parents. Maria Rees, a specialist neonatal nurse for 12 years, puts it like this: “Nobody plans for a premature birth. What should be an exciting experience becomes a nightmare.” The tiny newborn is whisked off into an incubator, leaving the parents bereft of their eagerly anticipated first bonding moments. “The emotional trauma is indescribable” says Maria, “It’s a rollercoaster.”
“The worst thing was not being able to hold Cassius when he was born,” says Tanja, who had a caesarean. “He was taken away to the special care unit and I had to lie on a bed in a different part of the hospital recovering from the operation. When I did go to see him it was a shock, he was so tiny and had lots of tubes sticking out of him.”
After birth, it is commonplace for the mother to be admitted to a post natal ward alongside mothers with healthy full-term babies. The effect of this can be extremely upsetting. Over the following weeks, the experience continues to be very different from the one the parents may have expected as they enter the closed world of the neonatal unit, all bright lights and bleeping monitors, visiting their baby in hospital rather than being able to take their tiny bundle home.
Although the experience of having a baby prematurely is undoubtedly traumatic, it is by no means all bad news. The care for premature babies is improving all the time, says Maria; “In 1980 when I was first working as a neonatal nurse, a baby born at 28 weeks would really be pushing it, now most babies born at that age will survive”.
One thing for parents in this situation to be aware of, is that there is a great deal of support available. The premature baby charity BLISS campaigns for improvements in neonatal care and works to support parents and families going through the experience. They have a free helpline for information and emotional support and also have message boards where parents can talk to each other about what they’re going through. The baby charity Tommy’s also funds research into the causes of premature and low birth weight babies and gives advice to pregnant women on health issues.
[quote_left]“The worst thing was not being able to hold Cassius when he was born”[/quote_left]
Parents can become close to others with babies in the same unit. Tanja and Jason found mutual support among the families in hospital: “You bolster each other up in the neonatal unit, we’ve kept in touch with the parents whose babies were there at the same time as Cassius. It’s impossible to understand what it’s like to have a premature baby unless you’ve really been through it yourself.”
For further help or advice regarding pre-mature births, visit BLISS UK.