"You are still the parent - not the visitor" - Hannah’s story #FullTermFeelings

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For Full Term Awareness Month, Hannah shares her story of how her baby girl Maggie, ended up in NICU with Meconium Aspiration Syndrome.

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Listen to Hannah's story in her own words.

I really enjoyed being pregnant. Right from the beginning, I felt fulfilled in a way that I’d always longed for. It felt as if I was living my purpose - that I was doing what I am on earth to do. But mixed with that certainty, was a lot of self-doubt, deep wounding and unhelpful conditioning from my childhood, that I wasn’t aware of at the time.

I threw myself into learning about positive pregnancy and physiological birth. We had one-on-one hypnobirthing sessions, I read stacks of books, joined groups online, created a vision board, painted affirmation posters, wrote our own hypnobirthing script, practised prenatal yoga at classes and at home, stuck affirmation cards all round my desk at work, we engaged enthusiastically in our antenatal classes and doula sessions, went to breathing and visualisation classes, did pregnancy meditations, had acupuncture, and listened to pregnancy and birth podcasts every day.

Until I became pregnant, I had the same conditioned view of birth as most women in the developed world (as a painful, terrifying, medical event) - and everything I learnt to the contrary was wonderful and enlightening and amazing.

I felt so excited and blessed to be the kind of person who seeks to educate myself and challenge conditioned beliefs so that my baby could have the kind of beginning every child deserves.

But as it turned out, the universe had other plans. After a healthy ‘low-risk’ pregnancy, labour started spontaneously during my 42nd week. After 36 hours of relentless back-to-back labour at home, there were concerns about her heart rate, so we were transferred to hospital where she ended up in NICU for 10 days. My baby had Meconium Aspiration Syndrome after an emergency forceps birth.

It was three days until we had confirmation from a doctor that she would definitely come home. Three days where we didn’t know if she’d live. It was three days until I could hold her, still attached to loads of wires and five days until I could try to breastfeed her.

I will always wonder if we’d asked to speak to a different doctor at first - a more sensitive communicator - whether we’d have had a better understanding and avoided those three days of terror, not knowing whether she would survive.

The hospital let us stay for five days in the maternity ward, and my husband wheeled me around. I could barely care for myself and my carefully prepared postpartum plan with holistic rest and recovery went out the window. My wound from an episiotomy and third-degree tear became painfully infected, but when I was examined they said they couldn’t see any signs of infection.

I persisted and took three different courses of antibiotics before the infection eased and I was no longer in searing pain. After five days we had to travel back and forth to the hospital, but I refused to go home without her, so we stayed at my mother’s.

Leaving her there overnight, not being in the same building, was unbearable. It was like living in a nightmare. On the outside I looked calm, but inside I was screaming, one long drawn-out anguished wail. I had to shut down to keep going, and in the process, I now realise I had to shut her out too.

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I’ve done everything I can in the four years since to help us heal from the trauma, and since the day we brought her home we’ve never been apart - bedsharing, breastfeeding, baby-wearing and bonding with skin-to-skin.

A lot of the trauma I still carry is about her experience in NICU - knowing the fear and pain she would have felt and feeling powerless to help her. Looking back, I can see that not knowing straight away that we were ‘allowed’ to do certain things for her and with her added to our trauma. We felt helpless, shocked and disempowered as her parents.

If NICU had been discussed in our antenatal classes so I’d had an idea of what I could still do, and how I was still the parent and the one in charge, and what to expect - then it would have made the experience less traumatic for her and I. And if our doula had had the tools at the time to help guide and empower us whilst we were in NICU it would have made a difference to our experience. I needn’t have felt so helpless.

Not being told until two days in that our baby wouldn’t like the way we’d been stroking her gently, not being told straight away that I could have been using my expressed colostrum for mouth care to help seed her microbiome, not being told that we could bring in our own blankets for her incubator, not being told that I could have been the one washing her and changing her. There’s many more.

As I was lying alone in the recovery area, surrounded by mothers and their babies, waiting for the epidural to wear off so I could be wheeled down to see my baby for the first time in a box - I took the initiative to start expressing colostrum myself as I knew it was crucial to do so as soon as possible after birth.

I may not have got the birth and the golden hour or gentle postpartum period I wanted for us - so I was even more determined to make breastfeeding a success. I pumped religiously every two-three hours, including through the night, to establish my supply until she was ready to nurse.

But when we tried she couldn’t latch, and we later had a tongue tie division. Thankfully, nipple shields were suggested and they helped us to breastfeed for two months until we could finally nurse on our own. I feel so proud that I kept pushing to get the support we needed and managed to exclusively breastfeed her despite our difficult start and went on to feed her until she was three.

My advice for other people whose full term baby needs special care is to remember that you are still the parent - and not a visitor. You still get to make informed decisions for your baby and trust your instincts as their parent.

Don’t wait to be offered the opportunity to do things for your baby or assume you ‘can’t’ do something just because it’s not been offered. When you take charge of all the elements of baby care that you can, you’ll feel less like a helpless bystander - and remember that you have the power to do lots of things to help your baby get better and feel better. Your baby needs you the most.

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