“I didn’t realise how many full-term babies get admitted to NICU” – Sophie’s story

Sophie 1

Two of Sophie’s children were born at full-term and admitted to NICU. In her story, she compares her two experiences of being on the unit, firstly with her eldest son and then with her youngest daughter.

My eldest child was born at 39 weeks and five days, weighing 5lb 10oz. Shortly after we moved down to the ward the midwives noted that his temperature was slightly low, so he was wrapped up warm and put on a heated mattress.

By evening time I asked the midwives for help as he'd hardly fed since birth. They called the breastfeeding specialist to come to support me. She immediately noticed he was breathing very quickly.

As a first-time mum, I didn't really know what to expect from my baby so soon after birth.

We accompanied him up to NICU where he had an x-ray, blood taken and a cannula inserted. It went in on the third attempt and he was so exhausted and unwell that he didn't even cry.

They explained it looked like he had a chest infection so he needed IV antibiotics and to be closely monitored. He could return to the ward with me but needed two-hourly observations overnight, and to have the antibiotics until the blood results came back.

The next morning he vomited some mucus so I let the midwife know. She wasn't too concerned but asked if she could cup feed him some formula as he still wasn't feeding much at all.

Sophie 2

I was in the dining room having breakfast when a member of staff came running in and quickly explained that my baby had begun vomiting when he had taken the feed - he had to be admitted to NICU. The staff would come and get me to see him once he was stable.

The next few hours are a bit of a blur. I remember going back to my room where there was an empty bassinet and ringing my partner, bursting into tears trying to explain what had happened. It was about two hours before we could see him but felt like a lifetime.

Walking onto the unit felt so overwhelming. It was really warm, there was lots of beeping from machines and so much equipment. Ethan looked so tiny in the incubator and it seemed like there were wires everywhere, I felt too scared to touch him.

I didn't realise how many term babies get admitted to NICU, I'd always presumed it was mostly premature babies.

It was difficult to try to update people with what was happening as most presumed we were home or due to be discharged soon when the reality was we had a longer journey than we had first expected.

A friend of mine had her baby a few months before and spent time on the neonatal unit – it was a relief to speak to someone who'd had a similar experience and understood what I was feeling.

Ethan spent a few days in NICU and the staff made sure we could still be involved in his care and supported us in the best way they could.

I remained an inpatient as I'd also been unwell. When he was well enough he came back down to stay on the ward with me while he finished his last few days of IV antibiotics.

We were discharged home after six days and were just so grateful and happy to take him home. I didn’t really have much understanding about what had actually happened to him and I struggled for a while seeing anything related to unwell babies.

Every time he had a cough or cold I was watching his breathing constantly, scared of him becoming unwell again. It wasn't until I started my nursing degree five years later that I started to have a better understanding of what had happened and why my baby had been ill.

Ethan is now nearly eleven years old and absolutely thriving. He is fit, healthy and football mad - a complete contrast from the tiny, unwell baby we were so worried about.

Sophie 3

My youngest child was born at 38 weeks and one via c-section, weighing 7lb 5oz. She cried straight away, had suction and seemed okay.

Whilst we were in recovery a doctor came to review her as she was struggling a little with her breathing but all her observations were within normal limits.

I'd been made aware that babies born via c-section before 39 weeks sometimes needed respiratory support but I thought, surely I couldn't be that unlucky.

My partner went home when we were transferred to the ward a few hours after she was born. As soon as we got there the midwives were again concerned about her breathing. She had also been unable to feed properly since she'd been born.

They did a set of observations and her oxygen levels were low as well as her respiratory rate high. This time I had a lot more knowledge as a paediatric nurse and had an idea of what was coming.

She was taken out of the room for a doctor to review her and the midwives came back a short time later to explain they were taking her to the neonatal unit to be reviewed and that they may insert a cannula and start IV antibiotics.

Although I was worried about her I knew that she was in safe hands. The midwife explained that her oxygen levels had dropped whilst the doctors were trying to cannulate her, so she had been admitted to NICU.

She kindly said that my partner could come back to support me due to what was going on, (visiting was restricted due to Covid-19).

It wasn’t as overwhelming this time when I went to see her. She was on oxygen, as well as IV antibiotics and fluids.

The following morning, she had seemed more alert, looking around and generally seemed more settled than the previous day. I'd gone to the ward to have dinner and when I returned things had changed quite drastically. She was on CPAP her breathing was terrible.

They say knowledge is power but in that situation, knowledge was absolutely terrifying. I even checked her chart to make sure she was definitely my baby and I hadn't gone to the wrong bed space.

Emilia had started to really struggle with her breathing so they'd had to put her on CPAP and she needed a repeat X-ray. They were concerned she may now have a pneumothorax (thankfully she didn't).

I went out of the room to ring my partner and all I could say without crying, was “you need to come to the hospital now”. It was just a case then of waiting to see if she got any worse.

Later that evening a doctor came in and told me that from a surgical point of view I was fit for discharge. I just burst into tears - I couldn't even think about being discharged home with my baby so unwell.

Sophie 4

Luckily the ward I was on wasn't full due to it being the weekend, so I was able to stay for a few more nights, but I knew at this point that I would be going home before Emilia could. She managed to stay stable but was still needing respiratory support.

I was discharged home when she was four days old and it was an awful experience. I cried from leaving her on neonates, going to the ward to get my things, including my hospital bag full of clothes that she'd never worn, all the way home.

Due to Covid restrictions at that point, parents couldn't return to the unit once they'd left the hospital site until the next day. I wanted to get home and see my other children who I'd not seen for four days, but I wanted us to all be at home together.

Thankfully she continued to improve and a few days later I was offered a family room on the NICU so that I could stay with her and establish feeding with a view to go home in the near future. We spent a few nights on there and after nine days we finally got to go home.

Emilia is now 17 months old and the happiest little baby. She's had one hospital admission with bronchiolitis but otherwise, she is healthy and well.

If you’re a parent on the neonatal unit and there's anything you’re uncertain of - there's no such thing as a silly question! You can also ask questions after discharge through the PALs service at your local hospital. Finally, make sure you look after yourself as well as your baby.