More than just the baby blues – Sarah’s story

After a difficult full term birth, Sarah was left with PTSD and anxiety.

Last January, I was heavily pregnant and it couldn’t have gone better. I had enjoyed my pregnancy and was really excited at the prospect of meeting our new baby. But her arrival did not go as smoothly as I expected.

My labour was short, lasting just 4 hours, but upon delivery, it became obvious that there was a problem. The umbilical cord had starved our baby of oxygen and she was born lifeless. She was taken away very quickly to be resuscitated, and she also had a couple of seizures. Only after the crash team had helped her come round did we get to hold her. Then she was taken away again and we were told she needed to be treated for Grade 2 Hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy (HIE) at a specialist unit.

That night, she was blue-lighted to St Michael’s hospital in Bristol, but we had to stay put, as there were no beds on the maternity ward in Bristol. We tried to rest as best we could, but we were extremely on edge and very confused. I was discharged from our local hospital the next day and we left with an empty car seat and no baby. It felt like a living nightmare.

We drove to St Michael’s where we saw her rigged up to machines and heavily sedated in the NICU. She was under a strong dose of morphine, so we didn’t hear her cry or see her move, until they brought her round. It was six days before I could give her a proper cuddle or attempt to feed her. All I kept asking was ‘why us’?

It was during this time that I was offered help from a Bliss volunteer, Ellen. She took me to a quiet room and I felt I could just offload to her. She was incredibly personable and I knew she found it hard to hear what I was telling her, as she became emotional as well, but this reassured me that she understood a little of what I was going through. I was so grateful for the short break I had away from our baby’s bedside to talk about what I was going through and from trying to be strong.

When the anxiety didn’t ease and I was consistently worried something bad would happen to Elena, I realised I probably wasn’t okay.

We were able to go home after two weeks in hospital. But things didn’t exactly get easier once we were off the unit. I was incredibly frustrated by the fact I couldn’t produce enough milk and colostrum to feed Elena and so had to give up trying to breastfeed her. I was also anxious all the time; I found myself getting angry if things weren’t done the way I liked or if the house was a mess, and I was having flashbacks of the birth and our stay in hospital. When we starting weaning, I was paranoid she was going to choke. I tried to avoid any triggers, such as discussing the birth or how I was feeding her, but every hospital appointment brought back bad memories.

I told myself these feelings were just down to my hormones. I’d heard of the baby blues and I knew becoming a mum was mentally exhausting because of the lack of sleep and the need to constantly attend to a newborn. I also kept telling myself how lucky we were so I should just get on with it. But when the anxiety didn’t ease and I was consistently worried something bad would happen to Elena, I realised I probably wasn’t okay.

We had incredible support from our family, but I didn’t want to worry them by telling them how I felt. Many people would ask how Elena was getting on and would comment on how well she was doing and how lucky we were. But inside I was struggling and, as the months went on, people rarely asked how I was feeling. I think they saw my best days and didn’t realise there was anything wrong. It wasn’t their fault but I wanted people to understand and they didn’t. I felt alone, as I didn’t know anyone who had experienced anything similar that I could share with and I didn’t know who to turn to for help.

Almost a year on, I know what I’m struggling with is more than just the ‘baby blues’: it is PTSD and anxiety from the events around Elena’s birth. Recognising and admitting that has been an important step, because instead of trying to ‘just get on with it’, I am now seeking the help I need to make sure I can feel fully well again. I am hoping that seeing a counsellor who specialises in birth trauma will help me get to the root of the problem, and prevent these feelings from taking my attention away from Elena.

Thankfully, Elena is thriving and although she will see a consultant until she is two years old, the doctors are pretty sure there are no lasting effects from the HIE. We will always be eternally grateful to everyone involved in her care and to Bliss for the support they give to premature and sick babies. I hope that the local services for post-natal mental health improves so that, in the future, no parent has to feel the same way I have, but in the meantime, for anyone who has had a similar experiences, please remember that you are not alone.

Want to share your story with us?

If you have had experience of having, being, or caring for a premature or full term but sick baby in neonatal care, we would love to hear from you. Fill in our online form to share your story with us.
Share my story