It might be seven years since Lady Sarra Hoy gave birth 11 weeks early to son Callum, but it is clear the trauma is still raw.
“It was 24 hours before I even saw him,” recalls Sarra, who had to have an emergency C-section after developing pre-eclampsia and HELLP.
“It was four days before I could hold him and it was like holding a frail baby bird. It was terrifying.
“You are separated from your baby by this huge plastic box and they are covered in wires and tubes. They look so fragile you are worried that you will hurt them.”
Sarra and husband Olympic cycling champion Sir Chris Hoy shared their experiences with The Yorkshire Post to mark World Prematurity Day. They also visited Leeds Children’s Hospital last week to hear the work being done there to help parents bond with their tiny, and often very poorly, babies.
Delivery cuddles are part of the hospital’s Family Integrated Care policy that sees mums and dad’s encouraged to have skin to skin contact with their new born as soon as their condition is stabilised.
Although Sarra was unable to hold her baby for four days she says they were encouraged to touch him.
“Whilst it was a very distressing time for our family, we were encouraged to feel involved in Callum’s care,” recalls Sarra. “Simply placing a hand on him while he was in the incubator was the start of our close relationship with him and important for his early development.
“It is a very isolating experience, you feel like you are the only person who has gone through this although it happens to lots of families. You tend to keep back and let the experts get on with their job of keeping your baby alive.
“What they are doing in Leeds is a game changer.”
Callum weighed just 2lbs 2oz when he was born without warning and spent two months in hospital in Manchester where the couple were living.
They now have four-year-old daughter Chloe, who was also born a few weeks early.
Sarra is ambassador for the premature baby charity, Bliss, and both she and Chris work hard to raise awareness of the challenges facing parents with preterm babies.
They are also ambassadors for a campaign launched yesterday by Bliss and nappy brand Pampers to highlight the importance of touch for ‘preemie’ babies.
A study by Pampers amongst parents of premature babies in the UK, found that 30 per cent of parents felt too nervous to hold their fragile preemie baby and 34 per cent felt they missed out on the opportunity to care for their baby, with experiences such as first nappy change or feed.
The pandemic continues to impact parents on the neonatal unit, further impeding touch, with 21 per cent saying they had to wear PPE while caring for their baby and 15 per cent said they were not able to hold their baby due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The study also highlights that the pressures of having a baby on the neonatal unit can have an adverse effect on parents’ wellbeing.
More than a third of parents said their neonatal experience impacted their mental health, whilst 63 per cent felt that not being able to touch or hold their baby as much as they wanted to, impacted their ability to bond.
These feelings continued when parents returned home with their baby, with over a third of parents saying they were too nervous to hold their baby because they were still so small.
Dr Liz McKechnie, consultant neonatologist at Leeds Centre for New Born Care says the hospital really encourages parents to hold their newborn baby as soon as possible.
“It is really important for mum and dad and the baby to get skin to skin contact as soon as they are stable enough to do so after they are born, even if they are on a ventilator, for five to ten minutes if possible,” says Dr McKechnie.
“There is a lot of evidence to show that preterm babies that have gone skin to skin have much more stable temperatures and heart rate and helps make them feel safe and secure.
“We call them delivery cuddles. Here at Leeds we have a policy of Family Integrated Care. That means mum and dad are supported to have the confidence to do all the non-medical care for their baby even if they are in an incubator. That includes feeding, changing their nappies and washing them. Being on a neonatal unit can be a very difficult experience especially seeing this little thing in a incubator that doesn’t look like you expect them to.”
Sarra Hoy adds: “No one prepares you for having a preterm baby, it is knowing what you can contribute. I was encouraged to touch Callum, but you are scared because they look so fragile.”
When a baby is born too soon, so is their skin. For the 1 in 13 babies born prematurely in the UK, their skin is up to two times thinner than that of a full-term baby’s, making it sensitive and delicate.
Due to the sensitive nature of preterm babies, Pampers has created Preemie Protection nappies, which are up to three times smaller than a regular new-born nappy and are specially designed to be extra gentle on preemie babies’ delicate skin as they continue to develop. Pampers makes donations of its smallest nappy to neonatal units in hospitals across the UK. They are now also available to parents and families of preemie babies, free of charge, through ASDA pharmacies.
“At the time, we struggled to find the right sized nappies to care for Callum’s gentle skin,” recalls Sir Chris. “Even the smallest ones felt like he was wearing a sleeping bag and we had to fold it so many times.
“It’s great that Pampers is helping preemie babies by making their preemie nappies available to neonatal wards.”
While at Leeds the Hoys got to meet other parents of preterm babies.
They spoke to a mother with a baby currently on the neonatal unit, a Katie and Matt Gregory whose twins were born in 2020 during the pandemic and a mother whose son is now nine, but spent time on the neonatal unit for a significant time when he was born.
The also chatted with Dr McKechnie about the innovative work being done at Leeds.
Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive of Bliss, said: “When their baby is first admitted to neonatal care, parents can feel like they’re unable to do much for their baby. But touching, holding and nappy changing is so important for development and bonding.
“Premature babies have incredibly delicate skin, so extra care is needed when it comes to touch, as well as an extra gentle nappy. Our mission together with Pampers is to ensure all parents and families of premature and sick babies feel supported and confident in their role as a partner in their baby’s care.”