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What you can do for your baby

23 March 2016

Looking back on Little Bliss

Little Bliss magazine will celebrate its tenth anniversary in April. To mark a decade of our magazine for parents, we’ll be looking back at some of the most inspiring family stories and popular topics from our previous issues.

Issue 26, Summer 2012: What you can do for your baby

When a baby is in need of special care, parents can often feel sidelined as they watch the doctors and nurses care for their son or daughter. But from the very first day on a unit, parents play a pivotal and unique role in their baby’s recovery. Here, Little Bliss looks at what parents can do for their baby.

When a baby is born needing urgent medical attention, parents are often left feeling helpless as the doctors and nurses rush around, providing their son or daughter with vital care. All of this can seem very unnatural, as it is a parent’s inclination to want to be the main carer for their newborn child.

But, whilst it is hard to deny that the neonatal staff play a vital role in keeping poorly and tiny babies alive, it is still parents who can provide the most important contribution to their baby’s long-term care and recovery. Whether it’s talking to them in their incubator, changing a nappy or having skin-to-skin time with their baby, research has proven that when parents get involved with their baby’s care, not only does it strengthen the bond between them, but it improves their baby’s long-term outcomes too. This is reflected in the approach most neonatal units now take to caring for premature and sick babies, by putting parents at the heart of a baby’s care. This is known as family-centred care.

Sarah's story

Sarah Lynne’s world was turned upside down when her son Matthew was born unexpectedly at 29 weeks.

“There was no prior warning that anything was wrong,” Sarah recalls. “I woke up one morning with stomach cramps and by the end of the day I was giving birth by emergency c-section.

In those first few days on the neonatal unit, Matthew was very ill. He weighed just 2lb 1oz, was on a ventilator and required intensive care. While medical staff worked tirelessly to look after him, Sarah and her husband Peter did what they could to comfort their son.

“He looked so fragile in those first few weeks with all these wires coming out of him, we couldn’t pick him up or cuddle him - we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves,” Sarah remembers.

“One of the nurses saw how distressed me and my husband were and she encouraged us to talk to our son. She told us that Matthew would recognise the sound of our voices and this would be good for him. We were also given two little pieces of cloth – one for Matthew, which we put in his incubator, and one for us, which we slept with. After a few days we swapped the cloth so we could smell Matthew and he could smell us. Like our voices, he’d be familiar with our smell and this would comfort him too.”

This helped Sarah and Peter feel involved in their sons care. As they spent more time on the unit, they found other ways to contribute.

“The nursing staff do an absolutely fantastic job, but they’re sometimes looking after two or three babies at a time where as we’d only be spending time with Matthew. We spent a lot of time watching our son and the nursing staff told us what to look out for to see if he was uncomfortable or in pain. We’d let the nurses know if he seemed really distressed and they’d be able to check on him.”

When Sarah had recovered from the emergency c-section, she was encouraged to express milk for her son straight away. “A breastfeeding nurse explained how important my milk was for Matthew and how I could really help him by expressing some. I really struggled in the first few days, I was still recovering from labour and I found it really strange sitting alone in a room trying to express milk into a jug rather than breastfeeding my baby.”

Fortunately, Sarah persisted and with the support of her husband and the nursing staff she succeeded. “After about five days I managed to express a few drops of milk – it didn’t feel like much but the breastfeeding nurse was overjoyed. After that I was able to express more and more.”

The following week, Sarah and Peter were shown how to feed Matthew through a tube, allowing them to finally fulfil one of the roles that many parents take for granted – feeding their child.

Matthew spent nearly three months on the unit before coming home. He’s now 18 months old and despite being on oxygen for six months and being a little on the small side, he is doing really well. Both Sarah and Peter agree that, even though there have been plenty of ups and downs along the way, those first few days and weeks on the unit when they got involved with caring for Matthew played a huge role in the progress their son has made: “It helped us to feel close to our son and made us feel like his parents, even when we couldn’t do the things we were expecting to do as parents. I also think it helped Matthew too, as he knew that his mummy and daddy were there with him, looking out for him and doing all they could for him.”

Krystal’s story

Krystal Richardson, 26 from Enfield, had her second son Thomas at just 26 weeks due to severe pre-eclampsia. He was born weighing a tiny 900g.

At first, Thomas was unable to come out of his incubator due to his size and fragility. In those first few weeks, however, Krystal was able to get involved in caring for her son by changing his nappy and helping to wash and clean him – these are known as a baby’s daily cares and neonatal nurses are usually happy to show parents how to do this.

In time, Thomas became stable enough to be taken out of his incubator. This allowed Krystal to start having skin-to-skin contact with her son.

“Thomas reacted particularly well to skin-to-skin,” Krystal says. “Laying him on my chest seemed to make him more settled, and allow him to breathe easier.”

Skin-to-skin contact allows parents to re-establish intimacy that may have been cut short by premature birth whilst having many benefits for a baby, such as regulating their heart beat and breathing, making them more comfortable and allowing them to gain valuable rest and sleep.

With the focus sometimes firmly fixed on mum and baby, skin-to-skin is something that dads can get involved in and is a very effective way of helping them bond with their son or daughter.

Krystal had always intended to breastfeed her son when he was born, but when he arrived early, she thought this wouldn’t be possible. However, with the help and patience of nurses and doctors, she was able to breastfeed him exclusively.

“Of course it’s not always possible for mums to breastfeed,” Krystal says, “but I was really glad I didn’t give up on my dream, as I felt it helped strengthen my attachment to Thomas.”

In total, Thomas was in hospital for nine and a half weeks. Nearly two years on, on the day that Little Bliss spoke to Krystal, he was discharged as an outpatient for good.

Krystal says: “At first you think they are never going to come off oxygen – then you think they will never come home. But they do. And now Thomas is a cheeky little boy, walking, talking and developing normally.”

Zoe Chivers, Bliss’ Head of Services works closely with health professionals to promote family-centred care on neonatal units. She explains: “Bonding with babies born prematurely is often more difficult for a number of reasons. And because babies can’t speak for themselves, you don’t know if they are in pain.

“When parents become involved in all aspects of their baby’s care, mum and dad can identify when they are in pain. We have had lots of feedback that getting to know your baby through skin-to-skin contact really helps.

“Family-centred care is essentially about the tiny things which build parents’ confidence and help them feel closer to their baby. If a parent can turn up and decide what clothes their baby will wear for the first time, that is a lovely moment and it makes huge difference. Also, it frees up time for medical staff because the parents are doing what they should always have been able to do – the job of a mum and dad.”

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