Coping with an early baby
What will happen?
If your baby is born prematurely (before 37 weeks), he may need to be cared for in a neonatal unit. These specialise in looking after very young, small or sick babies. Like all hospitals, neonatal units can seem daunting, but your baby will be in the best possible place, explains Shelley Mason, family support coordinator at BLISS, the premature baby charity: ‘A neonatal unit may seem frightening at first, but you will soon feel comfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions: the staff are only happy to explain things to you.’ In most hospitals the unit is divided into three different levels of care. Your baby will be looked after in the level that is most appropriate for his needs.
- Intensive care provides a range of medical neonatal care, which varies from hospital to hospital. Not all offer specialist services like neonatal surgery, however.
- High dependency offers breathing support and intravenous nutrition.
- Special care baby unit (SCBU) can offer tube-feeding, extra oxygen and light therapy.
Occasionally, babies have to be transferred to a neonatal unit in a different hospital, which can provide the appropriate care for your baby’s particular needs.
When will we be able to bring him home?
You’ll be able to bring your baby home when he’s feeding well, gaining weight steadily and hospital staff are sure he’ll be able to manage without support. This may be when he’s about 36 weeks post-conception, or weighs 1.75kg (3lb 14oz), but it does depend on individual cases.
Taking a premature baby home when he seems so small and fragile is pretty nerve-wracking, but the SCBUs are always there for support if you need it. As Shelley explains: ‘Bringing your baby home will be something you have longed for, but at the same time it can give rise to anxieties and insecurities. But your baby is being allowed home because he is well enough to leave hospital, and there will be plenty of support systems in place to ensure that there is someone to contact if you are worried.
‘Now is the time to relax and enjoy your baby – you can catch up on those cuddles you may have missed out on!’
What will he eat, and how much?
Premature babies have a lot of catching up to do so will need more fluids and calories than full-term babies. Small babies can only manage small feeds, so they need feeding frequently. Breast milk is the best option to help them grow and to fight against infections and stress. Very small babies, usually under 1kg (2lb 3oz), will start with liquid feed fed through a fine tube into a vein (IV line).