Sunday, January 10, 2016

Experience: I gave birth at 23 weeks

It took six years of trying for me to fall pregnant. My husband and I had given up on the four and a half years of fertility treatment and decided to go down the route of adoption when it finally happened. It wasn’t really until the 20-week scan that I allowed myself to believe I was going to have a child, and when we found out she was a girl, we started talking about names, daring to think about her future.

Three weeks later, we were packing the car to go on holiday when I felt a sharp stomach pain, followed by the feeling that my hips were trying to open up. My mother-in-law, who used to be a midwife, reassured me it was probably fine, and when we got to hospital, the doctor agreed, even when I began having what I now realise were contractions.

Still, we hung around, just in case. Then the doctor told us, “I’m so sorry – it is labour.” Had she not said “sorry”, I wouldn’t have worried – lots of babies are born prematurely, after all – but what I hadn’t realised is that there’s only around a 20% survival rate for babies born at 23 weeks. I thought everyone was overreacting as they fussed around me, and assumed the flurry of injections to slow my progress and dose up my baby’s lungs with steroids would stop the labour. They didn’t.

It was only when I was wheeled into a room filled with equipment to resuscitate my child that the truth hit me. I burst into tears and suddenly felt very afraid. Around teatime, I was moved by ambulance to a bigger hospital, which was encouraging, especially because the contractions were by now frequent and painful.

I was taken straight to the labour ward, where the consultant neonatologist told us it was not routine to try to sustain the life of a baby born as early as ours and that, if we let nature take its course, our child’s underdeveloped lungs would not cope and she would die quickly after birth. Even if they provided life support, there was only a small chance of it working and a high risk of severe disabilities. But for us it was simple: we wanted our daughter to have every opportunity to live.

After a surprisingly natural birth, our little girl arrived at 4am. Wrapped in a plastic bag for warmth and a tiny hat, she was held out for me to kiss before being whisked off to an incubator. Weighing only 520g, she looked like an alien, her eyes fused shut and her skin red and taut over her bones. She was impossibly small and I loved her with sudden, violent ferocity.

An hour later, we were reunited in the special care baby unit, where she was covered in tubes and felt horribly distant. Day after day, I’d sit for hours with my forehead pressed against the incubator, reading stories and singing to her. There were times when it was almost too much to bear, because it was so clear she should still be inside me – a feeling that was only compounded by having to ask permission to touch her.

The first week was the hardest, because it was so unclear if she’d survive, but it was also the most beautiful, because we were finally a mum and dad. I refused to allow myself any tears, but everything I suppressed seemed to surface as I slept, and I often woke up clammy and breathless, having dreamed of her funeral.

By her 10th day, it was amazing to be able to hold her. After 15 weeks of expressing milk eight times a day, I cried when I was first able to breastfeed her. She was in hospital for 144 days altogether, and although it was so hard to be without her at nights, it was wonderful to see her grow stronger.

As the weeks turned to months, her reliance on breathing support went down, then up, then down again, but after graduating through less and less invasive machines, she finally came home exactly four weeks after her due date. I felt as though someone might tap us on the shoulder and tell us to put her back.

Twelve weeks on, she’s still on oxygen, but is doing well. We don’t know what lies ahead, but embracing adoption meant we’d already prepared ourselves for a child with significant needs. The main thing is that our beautiful and resilient daughter is alive.


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