When It Doesn't Go To Plan
My daughter was born early. My birth story isn’t the one I’d imagined. When my story was unfolding there was no one to talk to. No empathy or understanding to be found. No “me too” and “it’ll all be ok”. Friends and family comforted me with the best of intentions, but I always felt like no one really “knew”.
Having been diagnosed with PCOS in my early twenties, trying to conceive was a long and painful process for my husband and I. Then on one grey January morning, after four long years and lots of unsuccessful treatments, I finally got a positive pregnancy test. Cue me running round the house in my pants, screaming and waving the precious stick in the air like it was the Olympic torch!
However, after only 27 weeks of pregnancy our daughter, Niamh had to be delivered by emergency caesarean section. 27 weeks. Looking back I still can’t believe it. My baby missed out on 3 whole months of development and growth in the safety and protection of my womb…
It was July and my husband and I were enjoying an overnight stay up on the North Coast of Ireland. I was stretched out sunbathing for an hour but hadn’t put any sun-cream on as it still felt quite cool. What a mistake. I ended up with severe sunstroke and my husband Michael had to lower me onto our bed as I was in so much pain - I couldn’t bend my arms or legs, they were so badly burned. I was shivering uncontrollably but couldn’t wear a blanket because my skin was so raw. Worst of all, I stopped feeling my baby move.
I lay awake in the dark that evening, prodding my belly, rolling over, doing everything I could to try and get my baby to move. Nothing. Instinctively I knew something was wrong and at 3am I rang the nearby hospital and asked if I could come in for a scan. They took me in immediately and began to examine … I was in agony. Absolute agony. My arms were red raw so getting blood taken and my blood pressure checked was excruciating. Never will I EVER go out in the sun without sun cream again.
During the scan the nurse said, “oh, this baby is really small” and in what felt like seconds, a myriad of doctors and nurses surrounded me. I was told I had pre-eclampsia, that my baby had stopped growing and they needed to get her out. With little time to process the news I was taken to my planned hospital close to home and spent the following 2 days with lines in both of my hands, arms and wrists delivering steroids to advance Niamh’s development and monitor my bloods.
On the third day a doctor came in and told me to ring my mum (Michael had been allowed to stay overnight) as I was headed for theatre within the next 30 minutes. I had an emergency caesarean. C-section mamas, you’ll understand that weird tugging sensation as baby is manoeuvred out! Then, silence … nothing only silence. It felt like forever. I couldn’t cry. I was in shock. Then suddenly my little girl was wheeled past me in her tiny incubator. She turned her wee head and looked towards me. 5 seconds. 5 seconds was all I got. I’d been prepared. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold my daughter. The doctors had been very clear about that. She was off to the NICU and I was left with my heart in pieces - every fibre of my being longed to hold my baby.
I spent the night in a ward with lots of other mums who’d just given birth. They all had their babies. I listened to those babies cry all night long, wondering what was happening to my own little girl. In the morning when everyone woke up they realised my baby wasn’t beside me, so they talked across me, didn’t include me in conversation for fear of offending me. I lay with empty arms and an empty belly, unable to join their excited “mummy” conversations. And when I finally did get to see Niamh, I crumbled. I couldn’t even count the number of lines and tubes going in, that giant mask that covered her entire face. I was terrified to hold her. But as the nurse gently placed her into my arms I got my moment. It wasn’t the moment I’d planned or imagined, but it was our moment. I had my baby.
Niamh was 13 weeks premature, so we were prepared that she would spend those 13 weeks in neonatal. Now the weeks feel like a dream, like something that happened to another family. But this is our story, and those weeks spent in hospital have wholeheartedly shaped who I am as a mother. At the time I struggled to connect with anyone who’d been in a similar situation. I didn’t know what a premature baby should look like, how long we would be in hospital, what milestones she should have been hitting. It took me weeks and weeks to realise that Niamh (like every other baby – premature or full term) would do things in her own time. There were days when it was one step forward, two steps back and I had to learn that that was ok.
Our first few days in NICU are a blur, but I do remember the waves of sadness and guilt that washed over me time and time again. I couldn’t protect or carry that little person I was meant to look after. I felt so such shame that I was afraid to even look at her. The day after she was born I didn’t spend much time with her (a huge regret now) and already began to convince myself I was a terrible mummy. Niamh weighed just 907g when she was born and measured around 20cm. I remember asking if she had fingernails … I had no clue what to expect. I was also so sore and tired from my section, but began to try to push those feelings aside and focus on my daughter.
Niamh was ventilated when she was born, then moved on to the (c-pap) breathing tube. She came off that within a week and on to two tiny tubes up her nose. We could then see her beautiful little face properly. She took 1ml of milk and the rest of her nutrition was administered through a tube in her tummy. Thankfully this lasted only a few weeks and she was then able to feed solely through a feeding tube. I couldn’t bear the thought of Niamh being fed that way now, but it felt like a huge victory at the time. I do feel incredibly blessed that other than being born early and being small, Niamh had no other difficulties. Our time in hospital was just one big waiting game. We were waiting for her to gain weight, waiting to get to 34 weeks so we could begin bottle-feeding, waiting for her to come off breathing support and to finally get out of her incubator.
Two weeks in and it was time for Michael to go back to work. I’d spend 10-12 hours every day sitting by Niamh’s incubator just staring at her. I’d watch her every breath, listening to the machines, jumping at every beep. Let me tell you, being on constant high alert is exhausting. She was hooked up to numerous wires and because Niamh was so small she had to be kept consistently warm. This meant I couldn’t hold her whenever I wanted to. That tender, motherly, nurturing instinct was denied except for one hour every other day. One hour. Only when the nurse had unplugged everything, was I allowed to cradle my baby. It was never enough time. I began to feel quite detached from Niamh and I started to struggle to cope. I felt further and further out of control and on very sad days I’d take myself away to the private room and cry. I hated being upset in front of Niamh. I didn’t want her to open her wee eyes and see a sad face so I made sure I was always a happy, smiling mummy for her. That’s what she needed. And I needed to be strong and positive.
We reached a point around week 4 when things began to stall. No progress was being made and Niamh was very lethargic and grey. We were informed that she needed a blood transfusion to give her a boost. After receiving the transfusion, the difference was almost instant. Her colour reappeared, she was more alert and her development took a leap. Two more weeks in intensive care followed, but Niamh continued to progress, coming off breathing support completely. We now just had to wait for her stats to stabilise before she could come off the monitors too.
At this stage another baby was born who needed space in intensive care and Niamh was the healthiest baby. We were moved from high dependency to the nursery and within a few short days she was transferred into her first ever cot - no more wires and baby grows! I could now lift my sweet girl whenever I wanted and have as many cuddles as I craved – it was indescribable. How we’d been waiting and longing for this moment.
Initially, we were told that because our daughter was 13 weeks early, she would have to remain in hospital for 13 weeks. But our wee woman thrived in the nursery, so much so that she was allowed to come home 4 weeks early! We took our baby home when I should have technically been only 36 weeks pregnant. It all felt very surreal.
Niamh came home on September 14th, one day before her 8 week birthday and she has thrived at home ever since. Premature babies are measured on their corrected age, so because she was 3 months early, her development is based on that of a baby 3 months younger than her. Our miracle Niamh is still thriving, continually smashing her targets and developing in the way any 11 month old should. We couldn’t be more proud.
Being the mum of a premature baby has taught me a lot about myself. It’s reaffirmed for me to always, always, always trust my instincts. I’ve also realised that I’m much stronger that I think, and I’ve never been more assured that I was born to be a mummy to my Niamh.