A baby that arrives after 24 weeks of pregnancy and before 37 weeks (as calculated from the first day of your last period) will be considered premature. If your baby arrived early - and one in nine new babies in the UK* does - she was probably whisked away immediately after birth for urgent medical attention in the neonatal unit, either at the hospital where you gave birth or at a nearby specialist unit.
In hospital with your baby
If you are coping with life as the parent of a premature baby in a neonatal unit, you will almost certainly find the atmosphere confusing at first. If your baby is in an incubator, on a breathing machine and being tube fed, she will also have lots of delicate tubes and wires attached to her face and body. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that you will feel anxious and emotional at times. Here are some tips to help get you through the next few crucial weeks in one piece.
Getting to know your baby
- Ask the nurses caring for your baby to explain exactly what's happening to her, and what all the tubes and wires are for. Also ask how you can help care for your baby.
- You will be encouraged to touch your baby. If she's in an incubator you will be able to pop your hands through holes in the sides of the incubator and gently stroke or touch her. You will need to wash and dry your hands very thoroughly beforehand.
- Your baby will find the sound of your voice comforting, so make sure you talk to her gently, as often as you can.
- Once your baby is stable enough, you will be encouraged to help with her everyday care. This includes 'mouth and face' care (gently cleaning your baby with a cotton bud soaked in expressed breast or formula milk); nappy changing (the staff will show you how to do this); bathing (once little one is mature enough to cope); and feeding.
- Once your baby's condition stabilises, you will be able to hold her outside the incubator. Skin-to-skin contact (called 'kangaroo care'), where your baby is carefully held inside your clothing, chest to chest against your body, is beneficial for both you and your baby. The nurses will guide you.
Feeding your baby
- You may be asked to express your breast milk to be fed to your baby through a feeding tube placed in her nose or mouth, that runs down into her tummy. Your milk, and the colostrum (first milk) that arrives immediately after giving birth, is particularly good for your baby as it's enriched with fats, minerals and protective antibodies. Your breast milk can be frozen for your baby to have later if she isn't able to have it immediately.
- Only once your baby can co-ordinate breathing, sucking and swallowing will she be able to take a feed from bottle or breast on your lap. The nurses on the unit may give your baby a dummy to practise sucking on before this happens.
Getting help and advice
- Many hospitals have their own counselling and support services for new parents and carers, as well as for patients. Charities such as Bliss will also be able to offer you support and advice and the Bliss website has specific information on what to expect in hospital. Never be afraid to ask for help.
- If you are concerned in any way about your baby's treatment or care while she is in the neonatal unit, request an appointment to talk to the consultant neonatologist or paediatrician, especially if you have missed the daily ward round. He or she will be able to explain what is happening, and why, clearly.
- Stay positive and remember that if your baby progresses well, she should be able to come home once she reaches her expected due date, and in some cases even sooner.