'I said a prayer that our newborn would have the strength to cry' - RTE's Will Goodbody's son 'born too soon'
RTE's Will Goodbody and his wife Bríd were terrified when they learnt their first baby would be premature. He recalls the struggle of those early days with baby Sam
Memories of that day eight years ago remain vivid. News that there was something wrong with our first pregnancy came like a bolt from the blue. Like most first-time expectant parents, my wife Bríd and I had been busy making plans - excited we would soon hopefully welcome a healthy bundle of joy into the world.
So when we discovered around the 30-week mark that something was amiss, we were taken aback. Scans revealed our baby appeared to have stopped growing. Bríd also had symptoms of pre-eclampsia - a mysterious condition causing dangerously high blood pressure in the mother which can only be resolved by giving birth.
Bríd was admitted and it soon became a matter of when, not whether, our baby was going to be delivered early. Every day was a bonus - time for his or her little lungs to mature a bit more, helped by a dose of steroids Bríd was given.
We were both pretty terrified. Bríd, a medical doctor by profession, better understood what was happening than I did, which was probably both helpful and unhelpful for her.
As someone who likes to be in control, I found myself uncomfortably helpless, lacking the knowledge or power to do anything to fix the problem. Repeated visits to Dr Google didn't help.
Although one in 10 births is premature, at that stage neither of us knew anyone else who had experienced one. Inevitably, amid the confusion and panic, bouts of self-pity also struck, prompting questions like "why us" and "did we do something to cause it?". We now know we didn't.
By the end of the 33rd week it was clear time was starting to run out. Baby wasn't getting any bigger and our consultant told us he or she would be safer out than in. As Bríd rested in hospital, I did what I could to prepare us for the imminent arrival. Premature babygrows and vests as well as tiny doll-sized nappies had to be found.
We were taken to see Unit 8, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU, in the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street, where our baby would be brought following his or her delivery.
That served as our first reality check, as it dawned on us that we were actually lucky the pregnancy had reached the point it had. Many other parents hadn't been so fortunate and were now caring for the tiniest of infants, some clinging to life.
At the start of the 34th week, as warm morning spring sunshine lit up the roofs of Merrion Square, Bríd was prepped for a caesarean section. I recall sitting gowned and masked in the theatre waiting area before being brought in to be with Bríd, and saying a prayer that our newborn baby would have the strength to cry.
Minutes later, Sam Goodbody entered the world, starting life as he has continued it, making plenty of noise, much to our overwhelming relief.
Many tears of joy were shed that day that our little scrap of a thing, weighing just 1.5kg (3lbs 7oz), had overcome his first hurdle.
But many more challenges lay ahead. Sam spent the following week in an incubator in the NICU, where he slowly started to gain weight. One big fear, that his lungs would not be developed enough, was thankfully not realised. We received extraordinary care from the nurses and doctors, something we will always be grateful for.
In particular, the nurses showed such compassion and patience as they taught us how to care for our miniature baby - how to feed him through a nasogastric tube, change his tiny nappies, clean him with cotton wool and occasionally put him down our shirts for skin to skin contact known as 'kangaroo care'.
He was so small and vulnerable, handling him was nerve-wracking. Among the hardest aspects though was not being able to hold and cradle him whenever we wanted because of the incubator, tubes and monitoring equipment.
Equally difficult was leaving him each night, even though we knew he was in safe hands.
Day by day though, tests were successfully completed and milestones met, mini victories for our mini man that eventually enabled his move across to the Special Care Baby Unit seven days later. Bríd was discharged around then and because we lived outside Dublin, we moved into a nearby hotel to be close to the hospital.
Another reason was that Bríd really wanted to breastfeed Sam. Initially, though, he was too small to latch. So we began a challenging feeding routine that was to last several months, where Bríd tried to breastfeed Sam and then expressed milk, while I fed him that milk, first through the nasogastric tube and later by bottle.
Because his mouth was tiny, Sam struggled with bottles for quite some time, often taking in too much air and then projectile vomiting the feed out again. His clothes had to be constantly changed as the milk would run out of his miniature mouth, soaking him. But gram by gram, Sam slowly grew and by the end of the third week he was ready to go home. We left with a deep sense of gratitude that we were taking home a very small, but apparently healthy baby when so many before and after us weren't so lucky.
But there was anxiety about going home too. The hospital staff did what they could to prepare us for the next stage. But there wasn't a huge amount of information available to guide us.
Once home though, our main priorities were to ensure Sam continued putting on weight and didn't catch any infections. Over the following couple of weeks, he continued to put on weight and quickly began filling his oversized premature baby clothes.
But as a return to work loomed for me, the feeding routine was becoming unsustainable. Sam was demanding milk every two to three hours and we were still bottle-feeding him breast milk - a process that would take two of us working together up to an hour and a half each time.
So Bríd took a gamble and, over 24 hours, completely stopped the bottles, forcing Sam to learn to exclusively feed directly from her.
It worked. Sam rapidly got the hang of it and I've no doubt the following six months of breastfeeding played a huge role in his rapid growth and good health.
Weeks became months and then years and we gradually began to relax as Sam continued hitting each of his developmental milestones.
Eight years on, we count our blessings daily and remain hugely grateful for the support we received from nurses, doctors, lactation consultants, friends, family and other parents who had been through a premature birth.
Sam has grown into a handsome, lanky, healthy, curious, outgoing, happy, sports-mad boy, who never walks when running is an option. We are acutely aware that, in so many ways, our experience was easy compared to what many other parents of premature or sick babies have gone through.
But it is also important that those who are about to or have just given birth to a premature baby know that, for many, the outcome is positive and that there is help available. That's why I applaud the work of organisations like the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance, whose new patient brochure will be an incredibly useful resource for those about to leave hospital with a premature baby.
I also applaud the work of the many wonderful clinicians and scientists studying this area, whose work will in time spare people like Bríd and I from having to go through what we did and, of course, give children like our beloved Sam a better start in life.
Beautiful babies who, through nobody's fault, are born too soon.
- Will Goodbody is RTÉ's Science and Technology Correspondent. World Prematurity Day is today.