Sometimes babies decide to put in an appearance before they're due to - medically, babies born before 37 weeks count as premature.
Many twins and triplets are born prematurely. The average delivery date for twins is 37 weeks and 33 weeks for triplets.
If your baby is born early, they may need to stay in hospital, for anything from days to months. The length of stay will depend on how premature and any health problems they may have. Special hospital care provides babies with the essential things they need to survive and thrive: warmth, fluids, nutrients and monitoring.
Medical staff will be concentrating on helping your baby to breathe, as his or her lungs aren't yet fully developed. Babies before 35 weeks may not make enough surfectant - a sort of fatty substance that allows their tiny airways to open and close - and they'll be given steroids to encourage their body to make more.
But what it means for you, and your partner, is that instead of adjusting to life with a new baby in the comfort and security of your own home, your life will suddenly revolve around the baby unit.
And in addition to the usual hormonal upheaval and tiredness most women experience after giving birth, you're plunged into intense anxieties about your baby's health and future. Plus, if you already have other children, you'll have worries about the effect your absence is having on them and logistical headaches about childcare.
All in all, it's a very worrying time, defined by taking one day at a time and accepting any help and support on offer - including Mumsnet. The thing to remember in your bleaker moments is that it's not for ever and that lots of other families have gone through the same thing and come out the other side with babies who are fine.
- The neonatal ward is really daunting at first but you will get used to it. Talk to the nurses, ask questions but remember that this is YOUR baby and you are entitled to be there as much as you want. JoEW
- Don't ever be afraid to ask a question or ask to hold your baby or anything else. WillbeanChariot
- A few things were really useful. A notebook first of all - I basically kept a diary of how things were going, positive comments the doctors had said, how much milk they were having, when they opened their eyes etc and it was so useful on the bad days to look back and see how far they had come. Mandy21
Bonding with a premature baby
This may take longer if your baby is in an incubator, but equally it may not. There's no 'right' way to feel, so don't beat yourself up. You're in uncharted emotional territory and you may be feeling pretty shocked. Plenty of mothers admit to not feeling a rush of love, and finding bonding hard.
Keep talking to your partner, if you have one, as they're also going through a tough time.
Things you can do to connect with your baby
- Kangaroo care: strapping your baby to your chest, so there's skin-to-skin contact. In the welter of medical equipment, it's a way of bonding with your baby and nurturing them.
- As well as feeding, nappy changing or washing your baby are tasks you will be able to do as he or she grows stronger. Ask, and keep asking, which jobs you can safely perform for your baby.
- Some people recommend putting a soft toy down your top, or sleeping with a soft blanket, so that when you're not there you can place something impregnated with your smell next to your baby to comfort them.
Things you can do to help yourself
- Baby units are very hot usually, so make sure you drink enough and don't get dehydrated, and have lip salve and moisturiser with you.
- Try to have regular showers or baths and changes of clothes to help you feel more human
- Find someone to talk to if the stress is getting too much. Bliss, the special-care baby charity, has been a lifeline to many Mumsnetters. A social worker at the hospital should be there to help with practical problems, and most hospitals have trained chaplaincy teams who can provide a listening ear for any patients or carers in the hospital.
- Talking to other parents who have been through a similar experience, either on Mumsnet or at the hospital, can also be an incredible support.
Things you can do to help your other children
- If you have other children, family pets etc, you will need to get extended family and friends to muck in and help with pick-ups, care, homework, meals, dog walking and generally keeping the domestic wheels ticking over.
- Your other children may be jealous of the amount of your time their new sibling is taking up. It's difficult because you can't be in two places at once, but try to normalise the situation as much as you can, talk to your children about their new baby brother or sister, get them to do pictures for him/her and, when possible, try to get a bit of time alone with them.
- Delegate - you don't want to have to spend time you get away from the baby unit on the phone or laptop updating everyone. Think about writing a blog, or sending a group email, so you only have to say it once.
Feeding a premature baby
Breastmilk helps a premature baby's vulnerable digestive system to fight infection, and contains growth factors. If you want to breastfeed, let the unit staff know from the start, and keep reminding them to avoid confusion. If your baby is unable to suck and is being fed via a tube, you can still express your milk so that she is fed that via tube.
The NHS Choices website recommends that you express eight to 10 times a day, including at least once at night, to keep your milk supply up.
- Basically you cup/support your breast with one hand and use the other to stroke firmly down towards the nipple, moving your way around the breast so all the milk ducts are emptied. Hot flannels can help. Yorky
- Breast milk, although fabulous, is designed for fat, full-term babies who have laid down great stores of nutrients in the womb. It is sometimes not enough for prems (esp the growth-restricted ones), so don't feel bad or be surprised if the doctors add a supplement (fortifier to your milk). Clabsyqueen
- You have to express a couple of times during the night and as often as you can during the day. Having something that smelled of the babies massively helped. Also, eat. My consultant advised that it's not the quantity of liquid that you take in, but the quantity of food which aids milk production. Mandy21
Taking your premature baby home
Bringing your baby home will be your next challenge. Ask if you can spend a couple of nights at the hospital before your baby is discharged. Don't expect to get a good night's sleep, but it will help build up your confidence for night-time parenting.
Once you get home, you may feel slightly terrified that you have to care for your baby without the back-up of healthcare professionals. The responsibility can feel overwhelming. But you've come this far and you will adjust and gain in confidence. Carrying your baby around in a wrap sling can help you to bond once you're home.
Some parents can't wait to show off their baby, others prefer not to have anyone else involved at this stage. For now, it's you and your baby who count - everyone else can wait, if necessary.
The majority of babies who need special care will go on to be just as healthy, adorable – and annoying – as their peers. It may not be the start to parenthood you had imagined, but it is a start nonetheless, and hopefully you've had your share of the bumpier patches of your parenting journey.