We all have a notion of what it will be like when we finally meet our newborn – that first cuddle, the car trip home, the sleepy snuggles on the couch…
For the mums who give birth to their babies too early, the reality of welcoming a newborn is not so picture-book perfect.
Instead of whispered lullabies, snuggles and sleepless nights settling a newborn. It’s about breathing tubes, NICU visits, and sleepless nights wondering if your baby will live through the night. This is what happened to NSW mum Alex Warden when her baby boy arrived two whole months before his due date.
Born at 31 weeks – Van’s story
One in 10 Australian women give birth too early, the most recent figures show. And Alex, a photographer from Port Stephens, on the NSW Central Coast, is one of them.
Alex, already mum to a toddler, was admitted to hospital at 26 weeks with threatened preterm labour. The medical team managed to stop the early contractions and put Alex on bed rest. She made it to 31 weeks, 5 days, before Van Conner made his quick escape. Alex recalls her husband, Blake, barely made it to the delivery suite to watch his son’s birth.
Weighing just 1.7 kilograms – that’s about the same as a small pineapple – Van’s body was only slightly bigger than his dad’s hand. He wasn’t ready to breathe on his own just yet, but he also wasn’t ready to give up without a fight.
Alex had her baby in her arms when when he started to gurgle, a clear sign he was struggling to breathe. Nurses whisked him away to the NICU, with Blake trailing behind.
For the first 12 hours, Alex was only able to see Van through the humidicrib. When doctors finally allowed this little fighter his first proper cuddle with mum, he had monitors and machines attached to his tiny frame. Still, Alex felt lucky. Some mothers with very premature babies wait days, even weeks, for that first cuddle.
“I was just so relieved that he had made it here safely,” Alex tells Mum Central. “I could hear and feel the bubbles from the CPAP against my chest as the air entered and opened up his little lungs, a subtle reminder that my boy had more growing to do.”
But when you finally hold your newborn baby, nothing else matters. No monitors. No machines. Nothing.
“I could see past all the distracting monitors and machines attached to his tiny frame to see this 1.7 kg bundle of perfection. It’s a moment I’ll cherish forever because it’s one I feared I would not be able to have.”
The guilt of saying goodbye
As Alex spent a few days in hospital, recovering from the birth, she got to spend time with Van, who would have to stay in the NICU for a little while longer.
However, when it was time to say goodbye to her little man, Alex was left with that overwhelming sense of sadness that every mum with a premmie can understand.
“Whilst I knew he was in the best hands possible it ripped my heart out returning from hospital with empty arms.”
However, for Alex, there was someone waiting at home, to fill those empty arms – her daughter, then 18-month-old Lennon. Alex soon discovered how impossible it is juggling two under two, especially when one of them is still in the NICU.
“My daughter was missing her mummy and the guilt followed me everywhere. When I was at the hospital I was missing Lennon, when I was at home I was missing Van.”
It goes against all your natural instincts to leave your baby behind in a hospital. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”
Watching from the NICU
Alex spent that first month of her son’s life travelling back and forth from home to the NICU, five times a day. Still too little for proper cuddles, there were some days when Alex couldn’t hold her son.
Fortunately, Master Van was kicking serious milestone goals in the NICU. He soon got the hang of breastfeeding and moved to an open crib.
There was “no more gawking through a clinical plastic box”.
Alex could almost see the finish line. After a small hiccup where he required oxygen, Van finally experienced his first taste of freedom and the Wardens headed home to enjoy life as a a family of four.
Back to square one
But, as mums with premature infants know, things can take a turn for the worse in a matter of minutes. Van’s taste of freedom was short lived as he developed RSV bronchiolitis just six days later.
“It was back to square one. In a humidicrib, tube feeds, high flow oxygen and lots of suctions to clear his airways. This time round he was too sick to get out of the crib at all,” Alex said.
“I was completely shattered. Never in my life have I felt so helpless. He needed to be in his mumma’s arms more then ever and all I could do was watch on next to his crib as he rode out the worst of it in isolation.”
After five days their tiny boy finally built up enough strength and energy to begin to wake up. The worst was behind him.
The family once again headed home with their newborn baby in their arms. And this time Alex finally got to experience those blissful newborn moments that every mother deserves.
Be premature aware
The truth is that more than 300,000 families experience this in Australia every year. Countless babies are born much earlier than Van, even at 21 weeks. Some babies require much more special care. Many babies do not make it home at all, leaving broken hearts and dreams behind them.
No one plans on having a baby prematurely or watching their baby grow from the NICU. But it does happen. Alex’s heartwarming images are a beautiful reminder of just how incredible our little fighters are. Her son’s story is proof that every newborn’s journey home is worth cherishing, even if it starts in the NICU.
For more information on helping our little fighters, see our article on milk donation for premature infants.