Giving birth prematurely can be a traumatic and scary experience. Stephanie from Small Babies describes her journey with her very own Small Baby.

“At 26 weeks and 2 days gestation our little boy made his speedy arrival into the world”.

Before going into labour at 25 weeks I had barely heard of the NICU and knew basically nothing about premature babies. Having your baby months before your due date was one of those things that happened occasionally to complete strangers, or that would be used as a dramatic storyline on a tv show. If you’d asked me how many babies were born prematurely in New Zealand, I would have guessed maybe 1 in 50. The real number? 1 in 10.

I spent 9 days in Auckland Hospital before our baby was born, swapping every couple of days between the delivery suite and the ward as my contractions increased and then eased off again. In that time we were shown a video about the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (that’s the NICU for short) and what to expect when our baby arrived. It seemed surreal – like a strange and slightly terrifying dream I really needed to wake up from! I’d already been admitted earlier in my pregnancy and deep down I hoped I’d be discharged again, but this time I was 3cm dilated and not going anywhere. The last remaining bedspace in the NICU had been reserved for our baby and the neonatal team was on standby.

At 26 weeks and 2 days gestation our little boy made his speedy arrival into the world.

My husband managed to take a couple of quick photos before he was rushed away, leaving me in the delivery room with a couple of midwives for company. A few hours later we walked through the doors of the NICU so I could see our baby for the first time.

Unless you’ve had a premmie before or happen to know someone that has, it’s pretty much impossible to comprehend how small and fragile a premature baby actually is. Weighing in at 900 grams, our boy’s legs were as skinny as my fingers, I could cradle his head in the palm of my hand, his perfect little fingernails were just a couple of millimetres wide. In the dimly lit room we could see his delicate skin was nearly translucent with tiny veins visible under the surface.

We stood next to his incubator, staring at this incredibly teeny baby while the nurse told us that for now he was doing OK. He was a decent weight for his gestation which really helped. She gently explained about the equipment surrounding him – the umbilical line, leads and probes which monitored his heart rate, temperature and oxygen stats, screens displaying all his vitals, and the ventilator that was breathing for him until he was able to do it himself. In that room in the early hours of the morning we decided to name him Ethan, meaning strong, safe, constancy.

There was no way we were ready for a 2 pound baby, we hadn’t even made it to an antenatal class!

The neonatal unit is overwhelming at first, there are medical terms, schedules and charts to figure out. The monitor alarms all make slightly different tones, cpap machines bubble away gently in the background and the whole place smells like hand sanitiser. There are 3 ‘levels’ of neonatal units which are based on the amount of care and medical support a baby needs. Level 1 is for babies needing a little help, Level 2 is in between, and Level 3 is the highest level of care. Ethan was in Level 3, sharing the room with one other baby and at least one nurse.

Being in the NICU is rough.

I don’t think you can ever prepare for how totally exhausted you become. Most new parents leave the hospital with their cuddly newborn, we walked out with empty arms, me trying to keep it together then bawling my eyes out the whole drive home. Instead of waking through the night to a hungry baby, I woke to my alarm to express before heading back to bed. In less than 3 hours I’d need to be awake again to start all over. Time spent at home doing everyday things like the laundry or even cooking dinner made me feel guilty for being away from the hospital. I’d sleep with the phone at arm’s reach just in case there was an emergency call from the nurses. It doesn’t take long in NICU to realise that things can change in an instant, there are many incredible little warriors that never make it home to their families.

For the next 2 months the NICU became our second home. In the morning I’d head in to the unit, check on Ethan’s progress overnight, do his cares, express again and again. My husband would come in straight after work then eventually we’d drag ourselves home for dinner. Finally we got some big news, a bed was available in North Shore’s SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit) and we’d be moved that day! In a few hours I’d packed Ethan’s things, he was strapped into a gigantic transport incubator, and along with one of our amazing nurses we went for an ambulance ride across the bridge.

SCBU was a bit different to NICU and it took a few days to get used to everything. Although the unit was packed it somehow seemed more relaxed, and rather importantly WE GOT FOOD! (in NICU the most I’d ever found was tea, coffee, and on a lucky day some sachets of jam to go on the plain toast). Being closer to coming home, far less travel time every day, as well as not having to worry about meals was such a big help!

Two weeks before Ethan’s due date we walked out of the unit as a family. His premature birth may not have been what we’d planned for, but it’s our story and it’s made us who we are today. Like it or not, the NICU journey changes you forever. I’ll always be grateful for our incredible NICU units – the doctors and nurses that work tirelessly to care for our fragile babies, the ground-breaking research being done in NZ, and of course The Neonatal Trust which supports parents and fundraisers for vital equipment. Without them our journey may have had a completely different ending.

Stephanie Manson owns and runs ‘Small Babies‘ who stock clothing and products especially for premature and little babies. She is passionate about supporting and helping other preterm babies and their families through their time in hospital to home. You can also find Small Babies on Facebook and on Instagram.

17th November 2018 is World Prematurity Day. It is observed each year to raise awareness of preterm birth and the concerns of preterm babies and their families worldwide.

Funding is needed here in New Zealand to improve the support provided to neonatal families, the people who care for them and to fund much needed research to identify the causes of premature birth and develop treatments and prevention.

Donate to the to The Neonatal Trust today.