You knew that having a baby would turn your life upside down, from the moment it arrives screaming and crying into the world. But what happens when your baby arrives weeks or even months early? Here’s one dad’s emotional account of the birth of his beautiful premature son.
It’s the picture-perfect new-arrival scenario. Baby arrives bang on the due date after a relatively short labour; mother and child perfectly healthy and back at home before the day’s out. Dad sits back with a celebratory whiskey while mother gracefully breastfeeds the content newborn.
And that’s exactly what I imagined would happen when expecting our first.
Why wouldn’t I? The majority of stories I’d heard to the contrary were about lazy babies staying ‘in there’ for longer than they should, mums-to-be complaining on Facebook about the lack of action and trying to hurry things along with a combination of hot curry and sex. Dream date.
So, when my wife called me while I was driving home from work seven months into our first pregnancy, I was expecting something like, “Can you get me some potato flavoured ice cream?” rather than “My waters have broken.”
“My waters have broken?”
A very, very little, beautiful baby boy
Thirty minutes later, we screeched to a halt at the hospital doors, and were promptly rushed through to the delivery ward. The months we’d spent researching and being inducted into the ‘natural birthing centre’ went out of the window. No question, no arguments.
Hurried messages were sent around the world on the (#toptip) family WhatsApp group we’d set up for the latter stages of the pregnancy, and after a relatively long and rather complex delivery (he was facing the wrong way and got a bit stuck) and a seeming cast of thousands in attendance, we had our baby boy.
Except we kind of didn’t.
Babies are supposed to stay in there for nine months for very good reason – they’re not developed enough for the outside world.
The cast of thousands were there for a reason; primed and ready to leap into action. After hastily cutting the cord, and the briefest of brief cuddles with his mother he was quickly cleaned up. He was breathing. But breathing REALLY heavily and laboriously. His chest was sinking half way into his tiny little body. He was whipped away by people who had that unmistakeable air of ‘emergency’ about them.
What do I do? Stay? Go?
Guided by a nod of my wife’s head, I went. Chasing after a deceptively quick nurse who had our very, very, very little Beautiful Baby Boy. She and our BBB were headed for another room.
Then another cast of thousands. Babies are supposed to stay in there for nine months for very good reason – they’re not developed enough for the outside world until that point.
In our case, our BBB’s lungs weren’t developed enough – one hadn’t inflated at all. He couldn’t take the oxygen in.
He quickly had an array of equipment attached to him. CPAP was put in place, ECG wires were stuck pretty much all over his body, and into an incubator he went. He was wheeled into a ward, hooked up to countless machines and the cast of thousands dispersed.
Continuous beeps, and occasional alarms triggered by one of the premmie troops desat-ting punctuated the silence.
He was alive. Tick.
He was breathing. When he remembered. Tick, tick.
He was here.
HE WAS HERE.
With two hands on the outside of the incubator and my face pressed firmly against it, I gazed at our baby. Our BBB.
I cried. Happy tears. Sad tears. Tears of relief. But primarily tears because I was so bloody scared.
A hard day’s night
After my wife was cleaned up, we spent hours huddled around his incubator, seeking information from the wonderful nurses and other specialists who came by. Why had he arrived early? No one could say.
Fortunately, at just over 2kg, he wasn’t one of those ‘really teeny-tiny’ premmie babies; but he wasn’t far off, and he needed specialist care and attention to finish off the ‘pre-world’ growing he was supposed to have done.
We stayed in the hospital that night. My wife was in a room upstairs, waiting for the remainder of the placenta to pass (yep, that was a surprise to me). I was an illegal lodger on her sofa, while our BBB stayed downstairs on the ward.
As any son of mine undoubtedly would, he needed food, and needed it fast.
My wife had been given a crash course in expressing milk. And apparently you need to do it at very regular intervals, otherwise your humongous bazookas could explode at a moment’s notice.
Bags of milk were kept in our room fridge, labelled with our BBB’s name, and when we had a good batch, they were taken down to the ward fridge – a huge dairy filled with bags of mummy milk for our BBB and the other 20 or so premmie babies on the ward.
I was awash with anxiety due to being separated from him. Like that feeling when you leave a new car parked in a busy place for the very first time. That. Multiplied by infinity.
We obviously wanted to be with him as much as possible, but my wife needed rest, too. The visiting routine was the same; elevator down two floors, walk about 300 metres, get buzzed into the ward, sanitise hands, stand by incubator and watch. We’d feed him, through a tube in his nose, at regular intervals. Little and often. Little (5ml) and often (every two hours).
My wife was pragmatic on the outside but on a rollercoaster of emotion internally. We’d been caught completely by surprise. She was actually supposed to be at her baby shower the next day – that had to be cancelled.
She’d spent the past seven months carrying our BBB everywhere with her, and now he was two floors away. I was awash with anxiety due to being separated from him, too, but in a different way. That feeling when you leave a new car parked in a busy place for the very first time? That. Multiplied by infinity.
What if he’s not there when we come back? What if something happens? It was terrifying. Having responsibility for a new arrival is daunting enough. Having to hand him over immediately and put our complete trust in others to not only keep him safe, but keep him alive, was horrible.
But he was alive. And the outlook was good.
A not-so welcome home
The next big hurdle was that, after two nights in hospital, we had to go home. Returning home, without our BBB. He needed to stay; to grow big and strong, we told ourselves. But we were returning home alone, and nothing we could do or say could change that.
I’d left the hospital a few times – picking up changes of clothes, feeding the cats. But the first night was pretty awful for my wife. I’d been at home the previous night, but this was ‘returning home after giving birth day’, and we didn’t have our baby with us.
Fortunately, the hospital was only 12km away from where we were living at the time (although in Sydney that’s a 45-minute drive at certain points of the day), so getting there was easy. We were a lot more fortunate than some of the parents in the ward, who were renting accommodation close by as they’d been rushed in from more remote places in NSW.
We established a regular routine. Each night before bed, I’d call to check on him. ‘Hi, it’s BBB’s Dad here. How’s he doing?’. Same thing as soon as we woke up. ‘Hi, BBB’s Mum here.’
BBB had arrived on a Friday morning. By the time we’d had a couple of nights in hospital, it was time for me to go back to work. There was little point in taking my two weeks’ (minimum wage) paternity leave. We discussed it and, given I only have 16 days holiday per year (after accounting for the forced leave in between Christmas and New Year) we needed to save the additional time for when BBB came home. So I went back to work; the surreality of the four days seeming like a drunken haze.
For the next three weeks, we had a routine. After expressing milk on the hour, seemingly every hour, my wife would walk (itself, a great effort) to the bus stop, sit on a pile of cushions subtly hidden in a shopping bag, and travel to the hospital.
She’d usually spend five or six hours there, and head home. After I finished work, I’d head down to the hospital and spend the evening there, before heading home to bed.
After a couple of days we were allowed to pick him up, just Mum and Dad, and only for a few minutes at a time. But those cuddles were so very special and cherished.
Although BBB was making good progress, there were a few hiccups on the way. It was two weeks before he was allowed to breathe by himself. He was severely jaundiced, so needed time under a heat lamp, while due to him trying to make an escape from the wrong position, his head was severely bruised. E. coli was found up his nose, while a heavy cold required frequent suctioning from a machine that looked as if it would be more at home inflating car tyres.
Some of the big milestones had been achieved in the ward. First nappy change, first breastfeed, first bath, first meeting with grandparents, first cuddle – they’d all been accomplished within the ICU.
The nurses and doctors were non-committal when we asked when they thought we could go home.
‘We’ll see,’ was the usual response.
However, one day we were told we could all go home tomorrow.
Tomorrow?! He still needed to be fed through his nose on occasion, but he was coming home.
And, what does anyone do in that situation? We had a night out.
We went to our favourite restaurant, had a few drinks and we breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Now, for the hard work to start. But first, where’s that whiskey?
Fast forward almost three years, and our Beautiful Baby Boy is now a Beautiful Big Boy. At the age of 18 months, and after a few hospital stays, he was formally diagnosed with asthma – requiring inhalers daily. Whether that’s related to his breathless start to life or not doctors are uncertain, but apart from that, he’s not shown any effects from being premmie at all.