17 November every year is World Prematurity Day, and the neonatal unit at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary is decorated in purple to mark it. Staff there have a simple message for parents and family of premature babies today – we see you, you’re not alone.
One in thirteen babies are born prematurely – after only 37 weeks or less of pregnancy. The neonatal unit is looking after five at present. And caring for them is about looking after the parents as well as the infants, says neonatal nurse Becky McKnight.
“We normally aim for the babies to go home on their original due date – though each one is different,” she says. “For very premature babies, that could mean a stay of 14 weeks, if they were born at 24 weeks. That is a long time for the parents to be visiting every day.
“And being in these rooms with the baby can feel very isolating, so we are here for the families as well as the babies – there will be mothers who have had traumatic births, some who have mental health issues, as well as the cost and the travel time of visiting every day.
“We say that with premature babies the small things are the big things. The first time holding the baby, the first feed, the first bath – these are very important stages. We support the parents, but the parents are the main caregivers.”
DGRI’s neonatal unit can offer a high level of care – it is a Level 2 unit, meaning that it can provide high-dependency care for premature babies. But newborn babies needing the highest level of care must go elsewhere, to the Level 3 neonatal intensive care units in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“Some of the babies we see here are born in Level 3 and then transferred here, closer to their families,” Becky says. “And some are born here and once we have stabilised them they can be transported to Level 3 for care. It’s very staff-intensive – some babies require one-to-one care from neonatal nurses.”
But you don’t need training to help families cope with a premature birth, Becky adds. “If you know someone who has had a premature birth, just talk to them,” she says. “People don’t always understand that there is an impact on the family as well. Mothers don’t know why it’s happening, and sometimes they can feel guilt, they think it must be because of something they’ve done wrong. It can be a very sudden event, and they can feel fear of the unknown – it’s not the normal pregnancy and birth that they were expecting. So just talk to them, offer to help, ask if there’s anything you can do – help them not to feel alone.”