Having a premature and full term baby in neonatal care – Bethany’s story

Bethany experienced neonatal care for the first time when son born prematurely in 2018, and again when her second son Teddy was born at term but sick. Here she describes how both neonatal journeys have left a lasting effect on her family and mental health.

I never gave neonatal care much thought before becoming a parent. I had always assumed it was a place very few families even needed to experience, which was one of things I found hardest when neonatal care became part of our journey – twice.

Our eldest son arrived five weeks early in December 2018, I suddenly went in to spontaneous labour one evening after work and despite a very long labour everything happened so quickly from that point. We were given some information about what to expect for delivery, that there would be neonatal doctors present at birth and that George would be unable to have any immediate cuddles. I don’t remember feeling much emotionally during the labour and birth as it was just so unexpected that it didn’t feel like it was happening.

George arrived safely and ‘healthy’ at 35 weeks and two days gestation. The relief was overwhelming but still not at all what I was expecting becoming a parent to be like! As George was doing so well, we experienced a side of neonatal care I never even knew existed. I stayed on a postnatal ward with him and other mums with babies who needed observing for a little while.

We only spent five days in the care of the neonatal team but it felt so much longer. I hated that my husband couldn’t be with us at night and that with George in a strict two-hour feeding schedule, but taking over an hour per feed, I was exhausted. It became frustrating very quickly. I felt a huge loss of control over everything that happened during that time, little things bothered me immensely such as having no control over what time the lights came on to wake us up in the morning, or what time I had to send my husband home.

Five days later, despite some reflux issues, we were home and enjoying those early days of being parents just in time for Christmas. As George has gotten older, he’s developed a few things that have now been linked to his prematurity. In a way it’s felt like a delayed reaction to it all. He had surgery when he was two months and even now at almost two, he has some minor health problems. It’s something that I think is often overlooked, just because our neonatal journey had ended, George’s early arrival wasn’t just wiped away and forgotten.

Shortly after George was born, we fell pregnant again with our second son Teddy. This time around my pregnancy was much harder and due to a heart condition I have, much more complicated.

I was significantly more anxious this time around, I felt much more aware of what could happen and it was highly likely we were heading for another premature arrival. We were cared for by a great team of obstetricians and throughout my pregnancy we talked about the ‘goal’ of holding on until 37 weeks. Given how unwell I had been, I was scheduled for induction shortly after this.

At 32 weeks however, I went in to labour and spent a week in hospital hoping for the best – luckily my labour didn’t progress! Once we hit 37 weeks both me and my husband relaxed hugely about the birth, we had made our goal and everything would be fine. It came as a huge shock to us all when Teddy was born sick at 37 weeks and 3 days.

Despite having steroids during my threatened labour, his lungs didn’t seem to be ready and he was unable to feed. Shortly after being born he was admitted to the neonatal unit and placed in intensive care. It didn’t feel real.

My lovely midwife came and sat with me for a while that night as my husband was not allowed to stay, she gave me a huge hug and we cried together, it was more emotions than I can ever describe. It was so unexpected and I just ached to be with Teddy, I was exhausted from labour and missing George too.

Having a term baby in the neonatal unit is very strange, Teddy seemed so big compared to everyone else, but for me that just broke my heart all the more. I wanted to scream that my baby shouldn’t be here, this shouldn’t be happening to us, we should be home together as a family! One of the few things that kept me going on our journey was the other wonderful mothers I met (usually in the expressing room) we would sit and chat about our babies to pass the time. I met some incredible people with truly amazing stories, but I always felt odd when asked how early Teddy had been.

Teddy’s journey took us through intensive care, high dependency and the special care baby unit over the next few weeks, it was such a blur. We were so lucky to have family to help us care for our older child and have them at the end of the phone. I never knew how to express how I was feeling though as I was so numb by it all, so lost. When we were finally told we could take Teddy home it was indescribable, the relief was huge but I was so nervous he would take a turn and be unwell again.

Nothing ever really prepares you for a premature or sick baby, even having been in the situation before. Our neonatal experiences were almost polar opposites and we are very lucky to have two beautiful toddlers, looking back I wish I’d known how to process what was happening better and accessed support sooner. My mental health suffered greatly following Teddy’s neonatal journey, a year later I’m only just beginning to accept what happened