What is it really like…having a premature baby?

Premature baby, preterm baby

Most of us expect these days that babies will arrive past their due date…but how many of us think that our babies will be born weeks before it? Well, according to Tommy’s the number of preterm births has hovered around the 7% mark for the last few years. Certainly not a landslide number, but definitely one which we can not, and should not, ignore. And for that very reason I’m delighted to be in conversation with Catriona Oglivy, who blogs over on The Smallest Things and who gave birth to her son 10 weeks early, to find out what it’s really like having a preterm baby, as part of the What is it really like series on the blog.

Can you share a little bit about how and when your baby came into this world?

Samuel was born 10 weeks early at 29+6 weeks. I’d had no complications during my pregnancy and no indication at all that he may come early.

It was a Friday morning when my waters broke as I got out of bed; I couldn’t really believe what was happening! I calmly called a taxi, threw a few things into my hand bag (10 weeks early I hadn’t even thought about packing a hospital bag) and made my way to the hospital.

Despite the midwives hoping my labour may not progress, Samuel was born a few hours later. The room flooded with doctors and nurses as he came into the world and it was six long minutes before he would take his first breath. I remember the midwife showing me a tiny little face wrapped in a towel. I reached out to touch him, but my hand was gently moved away and in the flash of a second he was whisked away to neonatal intensive care.

Having previously spent time working in a large neonatal unit, did you ever really think that your own baby could be born too soon?

Samuel was taken to the neonatal unit where I had worked a few years before. When my GP had asked me where I’d like to have my baby my only thought was of Kings College Hospital. Having worked there I knew how good their neonatal unit was and I remember thinking that if anything went wrong that is the place I would want to be. I don’t think I ever really thought that my baby could be born early, (I wasn’t planning on starting maternity leave unit 38 weeks), and I’m not sure it prepared me for the challenges we would face.

In a strange way it made being mum to a tiny fragile baby more difficult as I could hit ‘medical mode’ and detach myself more from the emotions of a traumatic birth. I also think more was expected of me as I should be used to handling babies through incubator port holes with numerous lines and tubes covering them, but being my own baby I was terrified.

Being an occupational therapist myself, part of my role was to help parents to be parents; to hold and to care for their babies. I thought I knew what being in neonatal care was like, but I soon discovered that I had had no idea. I’d never truly appreciated the trauma that parents go through, the emotional rollercoaster and the host of conflicting feelings.

Premature baby, preterm baby

What challenges did your son face as a baby born too soon?

Like many babies born early, Samuel has had ongoing respiratory difficulties with simple coughs and colds in danger of landing us in hospital. As he gets older his lungs continue to develop and get stronger, but it is always a worry for us. He has always met or been ahead of his developmental milestones according to his corrected age (the age according to his due date rather than birth date) and is doing so well at school.

At just turned four though he is one of the youngest in his class and as a direct result of his prematurity has gone to school a year too soon. Born in early August, but not due until mid October, he literally was born into the wrong academic year!

Does having a baby who was born too soon take the challenge of being a parent to an entirely different level?

Nothing can really prepare you for becoming a parent, but what I always say is that for parents of premature babies all the planning and anticipation is dramatically and very suddenly interrupted. You have ideas about holding your baby for the first time; of about bringing them home to meet the family. You have their room decorated, your hospital bag packed, an empty crib ready and waiting and their first outfit chosen.

I had nothing ready. No hospital bag, no car seat, no baby grows or crib. I waited six days to be able to hold my baby and changed my first nappy holding tiny legs resembling sticks through holes in an incubator. It does take things to an entirely different level, but I am also mindful that everyone’s birthing experience is different and everyone has their own journey when starting out as a new parent.

Why, given the number of babies who are born too soon in the UK, are premies little talked about?

The neonatal intensive care unit isn’t the sort of place you’d stumble across and I think people can be afraid of the unknown. Seeing the smallest of babies hooked up to tubes and wires, some at the very edge of life, is not for the feint hearted and TV documentaries like ‘Miracle Babies’ last year really helps to shine a light on the subject.

As a parent of a premature baby it can be difficult to explain or re-live your journey through neonatal care and where there is a lack of understanding it can feel safer to stay silent. I think this is why mothers can describe their journey as being quite isolating and why I initially set up my Smallest Things blog.

What are people’s reactions towards having a baby born too soon, and what is the most frustrating thing you have encountered?

I found that people thought my baby was just a smaller version of a term baby. Perhaps well meaning comments such as ‘Labour must have been easy for you’ or ‘at least you got to miss that really big stage’ were in fact quite hurtful. I don’t think people really realised how scary giving birth 10 weeks early can be, what difficulties premature babies can face or what it is like to go home every day without your baby.

What was the single greatest challenge of being a parent to a baby born too soon?

It may sound strange, but there is a great sense of loss and grief when your baby is born prematurely. I was discharged from hospital the day my son was born and had to go home that evening without him. I was empty and I was without a baby to hold. Although my baby was alive I grieved for the baby I was missing. This also caused a great deal of guilt; feelings that I must be selfish to feel this way when others really are grieving for their lost babies.

You feel a sense of loss – loss of that first precious hold after birth, loss of your final months/weeks of pregnancy, time to plan, buy, decorate and prepare. Loss of the celebration of a new birth as you welcome your new baby into the world with caution and anxiety. For a long time I ached for the baby I wasn’t able to hold and that is one of the greatest challenges I have had to overcome.

Premature baby, preterm baby

Tell us more about your campaign to extend parental leave for mothers of babies born too soon…

I had no idea when my baby was born prematurely that my maternity leave would begin the very next day; days before I would first be able to hold him and months before I would be able to bring him home. I had planned to take 9 months maternity leave, so by the time I bought my son home I had already used nearly a quarter of my leave visiting him daily in hospital. And rather than returning to work when my son was 9 months old, developmentally at his corrected age he was only 6 months old, not able to sit independently and not yet weaned.

It was too soon for him and too soon for me. I needed more time to recover from the trauma of time in NICU and more time to bond with my baby, and he needed more time to grow and develop. So, I started a petition calling on government to extend statutory paid parental leave for those with premature babies – the petition now has over 11,000 signatures! My local MP Steve Reed is championing the petition in parliament and it was even discussed by MPs as part of a Westminster Hall debate… so please sign the petition here and watch this space!

If there is one thing you wish people would understand about having a premature baby it is….

That the journey through neonatal care doesn’t end when you leave the neonatal unit. I remember someone once saying to me ‘well at least it’s all over now’, but your journey and the memories of NICU stay with you. For us we have had subsequent admissions to hospital with respiratory illnesses and regular follow up appointments.

There are the anxieties of reaching milestones, worries about lasting affects and of course time needed for you to recover mentally and physically. More than half of mothers are said to experience anxiety and signs of post traumatic stress disorder following a premature birth and more awareness is needed of the lasting effects of neonatal care on families.

Anything else you would like to add?

Two things; firstly my thanks to the wonderful NHS staff who have not only supported us through neonatal care but beyond, they are all amazing; and secondly to say to other parents of premature babies that they are not alone and by speaking about our experiences together we can raise awareness.

Read more on the blog at The Smallest Things here, sign the petition here and connect on Facebook and Twitter

Explore other eye opening issues in the What is it really like series on the dedicated page here.


  1. What a well-written post Catriona, and it perfectly hits the nail on the head as far as my own experience with a prem baby went. You summed up feelings I didn’t even know I had when you talked about the sense of loss – the truncated pregnancy & anticipation cut short, the baby left guiltily in the neo-natal ward whenever I needed to eat or rest. I knew I felt felt bad about those things but I didn’t think of them as being a loss. They were.

    • Catriona really opened up my eyes with this post – it’s never something I ever considered could happen to me, but I guess that’s how everyone feels until it actually happens…brilliant for her to share so candidly and campaign for this cause x

  2. It’s crazy what you forget (maybe not forget forget but you know what I mean) when your the parent of a prem baby… Our teen was also born 10 weeks early, and honestly as the years have passed its not even something we discuss (outside of the home and family) much, except with doctors and opticians etc. Those were some of the hardest days of our lives, but one look at her now and it’s easy to see why we don’t talk about it to people… She’s not the baby that was prem and was hooked on machines and had tubes and wires everywhere, or the toddler that was prem, that was slightly behind in her milestones and still a little weak, she’s the moody, arsey teenager with dreams of fame and a slight bad attitude at times, the same as all the others , and there’s really what we discuss now lol…

    I think it’s great to raise awareness and inform people of what you’ve been through and what others might be able to expect if they have a prem baby, your story has highlighted so many points, feelings and emotions, and the law should absolutely be changed to allow parents of prem babies more time… I truly hope you succeed with your petition. I’m off to sign it 😉 thanks Catriona for such an honest, real and informative post.

  3. My daughter was born 2 weeks ago (to the minute, at the time of writing this, 07:25,) at 24+1 weeks. My experience has been exactly the same. I’ve had to explain to people that even though her eyes are open she isn’t looking around, she wont smile yet, she won’t feed from me etc, until she is nearer her due date. People like to be positive, but sometimes the positive attitude isn’t helpful. I feel like I’m missing out on the end of my pregnancy. I was looking forward to that beached whale feeling, to not fitting into ordinary clothes, to planning a birth in October, just before my birthday. But, my body obviously couldn’t cope being pregnant so, she’s here and she’s fighting and she’s thriving.
    With regards leave, my boss and one of the Sisters at work (I’m a Nurse in the NHS) have been outstanding. They have fought HR for me to have extended leave. Otherwise, I’d be going back to work with (essentially) a 2 month old. I couldn’t do that.
    I’m glad I read your blog post today. It is something I definatly needed to read. Thank you.

    • Hi Abi, I am so pleased you found this post and that it made you feel better. There are so many emotions tied up with a premature birth which other people often find hard to understand, and it’s so hard when you have to explain all those things. I’m so happy to hear that your work has been so supportive. That is amazing. But it is so hard when you feel robbed of the final stage of your pregnancy, Talya xxx

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