The distance between us: the realities of having an incubator baby

No matter how organised we might be, some things in life are completely out of our hands. For Becky Revell and her husband Andrew, the curve ball came in the form of a premature first baby. Becky shares her story of his shock arrival at 32 weeks, the trauma of the separation while he was in NICU, and of coming to terms with her (unnecessary) guilt.

“Dig deep babe!” shouted my husband, “you’re nearly there.” You’d be forgiven for thinking I was in the last stages of finishing a sporting event. But no, this was an event unlike any other I had competed in, and what was worse, I wasn’t remotely prepared.

I’m known for being the organised one. I can’t leave the house without a diary, well, these days it’s my iPhone, and the most used apps are the calendar and reminders. Ahh lists. I love lists, and the pure satisfaction of ticking things off as they get done: social events, birthday parties, lessons for the children I teach… I’m a planner, plain and simple, but the one thing I didn’t plan on was having a premature baby!

Being a premature baby myself, and having a sister who was also born prematurely you would have thought that perhaps I might have anticipated it happening to me, but I didn’t! This was our first baby and my pregnancy was completely different to my mother’s. We’d had no problems conceiving and everything was progressing nicely - scans were good, baby was growing, and I was fit and healthy. Ever true to my planning self, I’d set about organising everything I possibly could. Nursery, tick, baby names, tick, hospital bag, tick, antenatal classes, tick, birth plan, tick, internet research, tick. I was ready. Roll on May…or so I thought!

To cut a long story short, on 8 March 2014, our son Joel (pictured right at one-hour old) arrived into this world, eight weeks early. To say I was in denial about being in labour is an understatement. Physically I had done all I could to prepare for the birth, but mentally I was still two months away from being ready for a baby. From this point on, I was no longer in control. The health and wellbeing of our baby and me were in the hands of many medical practitioners. My husband and I were just along for the ride. All I remember is the sheer relief of hearing our baby boy screaming as he took his first breath, shortly followed by numbness as he was whisked away to be put in an incubator. At 1495g, he was too tiny and fragile to have any skin-to-skin time.

Three hours later, in the early hours of the morning, I was wheeled in to see him in NICU. I laid my hand on his chest through the incubator hole and said hello. There was no surge of love, no tears of joy, just an emptiness inside me. This tiny baby was MY baby boy, and I longed to cuddle and connect with him, but it was too soon, and the wall of the incubator remained a steadfast barrier between us. I was taken to my room to sleep, exhausted and traumatised after such an unexpected experience. There I was alone in the hospital, no husband and no baby! Once I woke up a few hours later, the enormity of what had happened hit me. The floodgates opened and my body was wracked with sobs. There was still no one there to comfort me, and although I had a picture of my baby by my bed, it was of little comfort.

We finally got to hold him about 12 hours after he was born. He was minute and so delicate, and I was so scared to hold him in case he might break. He didn’t look like he was supposed to. He had a bruised and battered cone-head, no eyebrows or eyelashes, swollen eyes and his body was covered in tiny hairs. He was not the picture perfect newborn I had been expecting and it still didn’t sink in that he was really mine. And so our NICU journey began. We had no idea how long he would be in hospital for, it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and getting through each day.

I spent long days and nights at the hospital and we became accustomed to the incessant beeping of machines, the constant tangling of wires and preemie baby abbreviations like CPAP, de-sats and NG tube. The two weigh-ins were the highlight of each week, the only way we could measure his progress, however small. Born so early he didn’t have the sucking reflex to be breastfed for a few weeks, so was fed expressed breast milk via a nasal gastric tube instead. Kangaroo cuddles became my focal point, giving the skin-to-skin so necessary to form that much needed bond for both of us.

As a preemie mother I was confronted with other people’s assumptions of what it’s like to have a baby in NICU. “Oh well at least you can leave the baby at the hospital and rest at home,” was a common misconception. Yes, that’s right, I want to LEAVE my newborn baby at the hospital with a bunch strangers, albeit medically trained ones, hooked up to machines 24/7 rather than have him home with me. Rest? No, wrong again. On top of being at the hospital for up to 12 hours or more a day, I had to constantly use a breast pump to keep my milk supply up, day and night. Now I know what a dairy cow feels like! I had more of a relationship with my breast pump than I did with my baby in those early days.

I wouldn’t have got through it without the support from my family, the doctors and nurses, and from the other preemie mums. Building relationships with others who are in the same situation as you, helps to ease the load. They understand your frustrations, your anger, and your tears, and they share in your happiness and joy at the small things because they're living it too. When you’re surrounded by the same four walls day in, day out, a friendly face can make all the difference. I still meet up regularly with the mums and babies I made friends with in hospital. It’s amazing to see how well the babies have progressed; you wouldn’t even know they were preemie now! We are all still an important support network for each other, swapping stories, tales and advice about all the new challenges we face.

Nine months on, I realised that I had never fully let myself grieve for what I didn’t experience. I was too busy just trying to get through the weeks and being the mummy my baby needed. I was so grateful that we had a happy, healthy little boy and were so fortunate that there were no serious complications, yet I still felt robbed of my right to hold and bond with my baby as soon as he was born. I wanted to experience that picture perfect birth and feel that instant surge of love, and I felt guilty for not feeling this straight away. What I failed to realise is that this didn’t mean I loved him any less. In fact I loved him so much that it hurt, but I was so scared of what could potentially happen to him that I blocked it out. I only truly felt like he was mine the day we took him home from hospital.

After a rough start, he came back fighting. I am so grateful that I have a healthy little boy who constantly delights me with his beautiful smile and cheeky personality. Life as a mum is a selfless and enriching experience, no matter how they enter this world. My experience may not be have been what I thought it would be, but we survived. We waded through the stormy waters together and came out smiling.

POSTSCRIPT: Joel (below left) is now almost four-years-old, and is big brother to Samuel, who was born prematurely at 36 weeks, and who spent a week in NICU before coming home. Samuel is now a cheeky, adventurous 14-month old who adores his big brother!



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