“Why I didn’t kiss my baby for 3 ½ weeks” – Dolly’s story

Dolly's baby in the incubator

Dolly shares her experience of having a premature baby born at 31 weeks, and how special it was when she kissed him for the first time.

At 31+5 weeks I had woken up with cramps. By 5pm I was going to be wheeled into the labour ward. My eyes large over my mandatory Covid mask, a midwife locked eyes with me and told me I was in labour. I was not ready. He was not ready.

My son didn’t get to have skin to skin with me when he was born - something I am still trying to make up for. He also didn’t get to have his first kiss from me either, which still breaks my heart. My boy was taken away from me to be put on oxygen whilst I was left to get some sleep so I could see him in the morning.

I didn’t sleep and I didn’t feel like a mum. I was no longer a pregnant lady but I was also not a woman with a baby. It had all happened so quickly and without explanation – my pregnancy had been low-risk.

It did not feel like my son was mine. On first seeing him, he was in an incubator looking perfect but not perfectly formed. He was small. On his small torso he had three cables stuck to him to measure his heart rate and blood pressure and on his foot he had a monitor wrapped round it that measured his blood oxygen levels.

On his face he had a sticker with a friendly looking teddy bear, used to distract you from the fact that under the sticker a feeding tube was being held in place.

I couldn’t just hold my son.

Quickly we had to learn the new dance that we would continue to have to perform for the coming weeks, how to untangle his cables and him from all the medical equipment without unhooking or hurting anything or anyone.

Our hands were the size of his whole back. We were told he was born 4lb 5oz which for his gestation made him a big boy; he was in fact one of the heaviest in the NICU. He didn’t seem big to me.

We couldn’t hold him for long as each time burned calories and he needed those; he also would get cold out of his regulated chamber. My partner had to sacrifice his holds so our son could bond more with me, hopefully helping him learn how to feed.

Our son hadn’t seen us without our masks on and we weren’t allowed to take them off so couldn’t shower down kisses on the blue bruised head in front of us, letting him know we loved him whilst encouraging him to grow and learn.

As soon as I’d been told he was going to be premature and at risk, I did all I could to make breastfeeding happen. I expressed every three hours at home, at hospital, day and night.

I expressed through tears of loss and tears of pain. I was told not to put pressure on myself but the only thing I could do was try and supply milk that was pushed down a feeding tube into my son’s stomach. In time I would hold him whilst it happened, letting him sit on my bare breast.

In time he did learn to thrive on his own, from tiny nips at my nipples to large bites and gulps. I was so proud. My milk was making him stronger and his bloodhound sense of smell meant being with me made him grow.

A few months before our son came my partner became a contract worker to allow for greater flexibility when our baby came along, wanting to eke out the two weeks of paternity and be as present as possible in those early days. To support me but also to be part of the little human’s life, something lots of men do not have the luxury of doing.

Our paternity and maternity leave was eaten into considerably by hospital visits and the unknown. My maternity did not start with family visits or baby groups. I didn’t have family coming round and filling my freezer or offering to hold our baby whilst I showered.

I was very isolated and if I didn’t have my partner thankfully working from home, I could have easily spiralled into a depression.

But our son was amazing. He didn’t cause a fuss. He was stronger than us. He was braver than us.

Dolly's baby holding her finger

One night, the nurse phoned to let us know that in the morning we should come to the hospital but this time with an overnight bag. This time we are not going to return home but do two nights with our son to see if he has figured out how to thrive alone. The nurse knew we woke to express milk and wanted to pass on the news herself.

We packed a bag and didn’t know what to expect. As we are talking our baby is wheeled in, all monitors off and the feeding tube removed. The nurse has more confidence in us than we had in ourselves.

The door shuts and the three of us are fully alone for the first time in our son’s life. For the first time we are the little family we were meant to be from the start. Now the hard bit begins.

We have up until now been playing games but knowing there is a safety net of feeding tubes and nurses, but now we have nothing. Now, our son has to latch and feed and we have to set alarms to make sure he does every three hours.

We sleep little, mostly because our son doesn’t have electrical indicators and beeps that tell us he’s breathing. We sleep in shifts and steal extra cuddles that we up until now hadn’t been able to. It is then we give our son his first kiss. In our room we are able to take our masks off and we both tentatively kiss his head, doing it together so both can be first.

My heart swells as that kiss tells me something, it tells me it is okay to fall in love with my son, it tells me that there is a strong chance we are going home and we are out of the woods. At the start we didn’t kiss him because we couldn’t, due to the need of light therapy and always having to wear masks.

But as time went by we realised we were afraid to kiss him as to kiss him would make him real and to make him real would make losing him that much harder. We didn’t want to love him as losing him would be impossible.

That night I held him for as long as I could. I held him without permission, without condition and with only love as I finally kissed my son after three and a half weeks. Nine months on I am still holding him, when he lets me, and still kissing him to make up for all those kisses he missed.