“People came to congratulate me on my baby, but I felt like a fraud” - Sarah’s story

When Sarah found herself in NICU with her second baby, Freya, it was a new and frightening experience made harder by the fact that other parents were able to take their babies home.

The birth of my son in 2017 had left me feeling traumatised and led to postnatal depression, so when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, I invested a lot of time and effort in preparing for different scenarios. However, the one thing I had not considered was that my baby would go to NICU.

My labour started with little niggles in the early hours of the morning on the Wednesday after my due date. I took my son to see his grandma and went up to the hospital for a routine appointment. The midwife wanted to book an induction and I agreed. Although I warned her that my baby would be here within 24 hours, I don’t think she believed me. From there I went to meet my friend for lunch, but then ended up staying all afternoon, eating cake and talking. The niggles were a bit stronger by this point (I remember my friend telling me afterwards that she could see I was uncomfortable) and while I still felt able to, I headed home to wait for labour to start properly. While my partner gave our son his tea and got him ready for bed, I bounced on the ball in the lounge and walked around. At about 8pm, I called the midwives and my doula. With our incredibly supportive team around us, we were ready to meet this brand-new baby.

I hadn’t progressed this far in labour with my son so when I felt the urge to push, I thought I was just about to meet my baby. I pushed. And I pushed. And I pushed. And no baby. The urge was so powerful, I had no control but at the same time couldn’t believe she hadn’t been born. I spoke to my partner, doula and the midwives: something didn’t feel right, and I wanted to go to hospital. We arrived on the delivery suite at about 01:15am on Thursday morning and were met by a team of doctors and midwives. Freya was born by emergency C-section at 01:44. The next few moments were a blur, and I can remember lying on the table looking over to my right, watching a team of people around her. I remember the neonatal nurse practitioner (in green, like a vet I thought) showing me my baby and saying, “We’re taking her to the unit”. I had to ask if my partner could go with her, and he hurried along behind as she was whisked away.

While recovering in the delivery suite my partner came down to show me some photos of Freya, in her incubator with oxygen on. It didn’t feel real. I had suffered a haemorrhage while in theatre – the consultant came to see me later that morning and explained that I had had a placental abruption and lost 1600ml of blood. At about 10am, and as soon as I was able to walk a short distance and had my catheter removed, my partner took me up to the NICU to meet our daughter. I became very practical – I remember getting changed after my wash and knowing that I needed to wear my gown back to front so I could have skin-to-skin. Being wheeled past tiny babies, twins, little humans surrounded by wires and pumps, to my 8lb 1oz chunk was surreal.

I found out from the consultant ward round that Freya had experienced some difficulty breathing when first born and required oxygen and assistance. She had also had antibiotics for possible sepsis, although this turned out to be a precautionary measure. In common with a lot of caesarean babies she was quite sleepy and not very hungry, so we cuddled and I offered her the breast but she wasn’t interested. I tired quite quickly and started to feel unwell so had to leave her behind and go back to the ward. People came to congratulate me on my baby, but I felt like a fraud as I sat alone in bed, watching other mums and babies come and go.

During the first 24 hours of Freya’s life, I saw her three times as I relied on either my partner being there or an available member of staff to take me up. I ended up sat by her bedside in the wheelchair as anything else was too low to get up from. But it meant I couldn’t stay long as the pain and dizziness was too much. I watched a baby in the opposite cot be readied for transfer to another hospital. That was a poorly baby. Why was mine here? I had experienced difficulties establishing breastfeeding with my son and so was worried about the same happening again. Any colostrum I managed to express seemed to end up running down the side of the syringe. I was happy for the NICU to give formula if Freya showed signs of being hungry. In many ways she didn’t feel like my baby, so what was the difference?

On the Thursday night she had been moved to the nursery and on Friday morning was to be discharged from the NICU to a transitional care bed with me on the ward. We were discharged from hospital completely on the Saturday. Freya is now 21 months old and ironically barely draws breath as she is chatting so much, keeping us all in line. The time she spent apart from me in NICU often replays in my head, like watching a film which is actually how it felt experiencing it.

When I was in NICU with Freya I was aware of Bliss, but as my baby was born full term, I didn't think they were for me. The work Bliss has done this year to raise awareness of its support for full term babies has been really great and I think it's important for NICU parents to know Bliss supports all babies.