SHARON Keogh’s tiny pre-term infant looked like a fighter pilot. She was wearing CPAP apparatus to help her breathe but it was a frightening moment for the Dublin mum, who delivered Heidi at 29 eeks.
“She had this massive mask on her face — it was scary-looking,” says Sharon.
The Irish Neonatal Health Alliance says one in 10 babies worldwide is born prematurely — more than 4,500 in Ireland each year. For the parents of these infants, the first weeks can be filled with anxiety.
“I felt so helpless. It’s not natural not to have your child beside you in the cot,” says mum -of-four Sharon, who recalls visiting her daughter one day and finding an IV line in her head. “The strongest vein they could get was in her head. Things like that scare you, but asking why and what’s it about helps self-soothe you a little.”
Admitting she shadowed the doctors, Sharon’s instinct was to constantly ask questions: Why these daily injections? What’s that machine for? What does this terminology mean?
A parent’s instinct to inform and educate themselves after the birth of a pre-term baby is absolutely correct, says the INHA. They list “becoming an expert” in their 10 Things to Know guide to caring for premature infants. The best tip Sharon got from doctors as she prepared to take Heidi home, was not to treat her with kid gloves.
“I had everyone washing their hands. Nobody was allowed touch her. The doctors said ‘she may be tiny; she may have a tough road ahead of her but treat her like a normal baby, go with your gut’. It was the best advice.”
At the same time, a pre-term infant needs lots of care, attention, and vigilance. “Be prepared for the winter season” and “your baby’s milestones are critical” are among the INHA’s top tips.
Heidi, now five, thankfully reached her milestones, helped on by her big sister Zoe, aged seven. “Copying Zoe, doing what she did, really helped Heidi,” says Sharon.
But the little girl, who’s very caring, has a dry sense of humour and is proud of the war wounds on her hands and feet —relics of the IV lines — is very susceptible to chest infections and coughs. “She has been hospitalised a couple of times with pneumonia. She takes weeks to get over infections, but each year she’s improving,” says her mum.
n The 10 Things to Know guide is available free on www.inha.ie.