After you’ve had one child it is only natural that you would like to give your child a sibling. However, more and more couples are suffering with a problem called secondary infertility. Secondary infertility refers to when couples struggle to conceive a second child, despite already having a baby. This can occur for many reasons such as the fact that many couples delay childbearing between their first and second child, causing a higher percentage of eggs with chromosomal abnormalities that cannot lead to a successful pregnancy. Secondary infertility can also be a result of disease in the man or woman; decreased sperm count; blocked fallopian tubes; or a large weight gain or loss, which can throw off a woman’s ovulatory cycles.
Parents usually have nine months to prepare for the birth of their new baby. however, a growing number of babies are being born much earlier than expected. Helen Holmes looks at the effect on the families involved. In the final couple of months of an ordinary pregnancy most parents start to gather the equipment necessary to care for a newborn baby; in the last few weeks the mother-to-be will pack her hospital bag,and some can even be found on their due date on top of a ladder putting the finishing touches to the nursery. However, for many parents the experience is slightly different.
Around 7% of babies in the UK are currently born prematurely and this figure is rising. Advances in medicine mean that babies are now able to survive outside the womb earlier and earlier, with babies born as early as 22 weeks now having a chance of pulling through.
Premature babies are classified as those born before 37 weeks. In some cases, for example multiple births, the early arrival may have been expected, but for others those first contractions come as a complete shock. Tanja and Jason’s son, Cassius, was born at 27 weeks. Tanja describes the onset of her labour:
“We were in Marks and Spencer shopping for food when I had some gripey pains. At the time I didn’t really think much of it, but the next morning when I woke up my pyjamas were a bit damp. I still didn’t really think it was anything important but we decided to phone the hospital to check. They asked me to come in just to make sure everything was okay.”
“The doctor told me that she was probably going to send me home to put my feet up, but that she’d like to examine me first. When she did, she discovered that I was already 3½ centimetres dilated. Jason had gone to park the car and when he came back he was told that his wife was in the delivery suite.”
The reasons why some babies decide to come too soon are not entirely clear. There are some factors which can make premature birth more likely, such as pre-eclampsia, extreme stress, smoking and excessive drinking during pregnancy. However, in many cases there is no apparent reason at all.
Being born early is life threatening for a baby, and can affect their long term development. Naturally this is extremely distressing for the parents. Maria Rees, a specialist neonatal nurse for 12 years, puts it like this: “Nobody plans for a premature birth. What should be an exciting experience becomes a nightmare.” The tiny newborn is whisked off into an incubator to fight for its life, leaving the parents bereft of their eagerly anticipated first bonding moments. “The emotional trauma is indescribable”, says Maria, “It’s a rollercoaster”.
“The worst thing was not being able to hold Cassius when he was born”, says Tanja, who had a caesarean. “He was taken away to the special care unit and I had to lie on a bed in a different part of the hospital recovering from the operation. When I did go to see him it was a shock, he was so tiny and had lots of tubes sticking out of him.”
Immediately after a premature birth the mother will usually be admitted to a post natal ward, alongside mothers with healthy full-term babies. The effect of this can be extremely upsetting. Over the following weeks, the experience continues to be very different from the one the parents may have expected as they enter the closed world of the neonatal unit, all bright lights and bleeping monitors, visiting their baby in hospital rather than being able to take their tiny bundle home.
Although the experience of having a baby prematurely is undoubtedly a traumatic one for most parents, it’s by no means all bad news. The care for premature babies is improving all the time. Maria Rees says “In 1980 when I was first working as a neonatal nurse a baby born at 28 weeks would really be pushing it, now most babies born at that age will survive”.
One thing for parents in this situation to be aware of is that there is support available. The premature baby charity BLISS both campaigns for improvements in neonatal care and works to support parents and families going through the experience. They have a free helpline for information and emotional support and also have message boards on their website where parents can talk to each other about what they’re going through. The baby charity Tommy’s also funds research into the causes of premature and low birth weight babies and gives advice to pregnant women on health issues.
Parents can become close to others with babies in the same unit. Tanja and Jason found mutual support among the families in hospital: “You bolster each other up in the neonatal unit, we’ve kept in touch with the parents whose babies were there at the same time as Cassius. It’s impossible to understand what it’s like to have a premature baby unless you’ve been through it. I’m not sure that even our health visitor really understands.”
Friends and other family members are likely to be eager to help out at this stressful time. According to BLISS the best thing they can do is to help free up time for the parents to bond with their new baby in hospital for example by delivering home cooked meals or picking up other children from school.
A premature birth is inevitably a tense time for a family. After the excitement, and even euphoria, of pregnancy it can come as a huge shock for parents to suddenly find themselves in the neonatal unit willing their baby to survive. And of course although medicine is becoming more sophisticated all the time there will always be some babies who don’t make it. Having a baby under any circumstances will alter the parents’ perspective on the world, the intensified life and death experience of having a premature baby will fundamentally change their outlook forever.
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