While I was pregnant I imagined what the birth of my baby would be like. I envisioned hours of pain and exhaustion, with my proud partner by my side. This pain and exhaustion would all be worth it when my baby emerged, strong, healthy and crying. The pain and exhaustion would be forgotten the instant my precious baby was placed on my chest for that moment of unforgettable skin-to-skin bonding.
My baby’s birth was nothing like I expected. Hugo’s entry in to the world was extraordinary, in the truest sense of that word. He was delivered by emergency Caesarean section at 24 weeks because I had the rare, life threatening pregnancy complications preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome.
The section was done under general anaesthetic, which meant I wasn’t present at the birth in any meaningful sense. My son was born fighting, and he was intubated and ventilated. He was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit, and I to the adult intensive care ward – at the other end of the hospital.
No skin-to-skin. No touch. No contact. No sight of my baby for the first 30 hours of his life.
Hugo was tiny, weighing just 420 grams at birth. Like many premature babies, he was stroppy about being handled. His tantrums would manifest as a cacophony of alarms, demanding his nurses meet his every need.
I had been promised a cuddle with Hugo as soon as he was ready. While I was desperate for proper contact with my son he was so small and fragile I didn’t want him to come to any harm. An attempt at a cuddle with him cradled in my arms was made when he was three weeks old – after just 30 seconds he dramatically desaturated and had to be lifted straight back into his incubator. I was terrified.
So, for the first four weeks of his life I made do with comfort holding (gently but firmly holding his head and his bottom) while he was in his incubator. He would sometimes grab my finger with his strong grip, which was wonderful. I knew he knew I was there.
Our first proper cuddle came on the saddest of days, and for the worst reason. Despite me receiving the two lung-boosting steroid injections before he was born, Hugo’s lungs were underdeveloped. He was struggling, and while there was another treatment that could be attempted, were advised he was unlikely ever to recover.
We were crushed. He seemed to be doing so well, he was growing, and he happily guzzled my expressed breast milk.
The news meant we were finally allowed proper, skin-to-skin cuddles.
I stripped off to the waist and donned a hospital gown to protect my modesty.
Sat in a high-backed chair like a monarch on a throne I waited expectantly as a troupe of nurses prepared my son to be brought to his mother. The ventilation and other equipment that was sustaining his life made this a tentative, careful exercise.
Hugo always hung out wearing just his hat and his nappy. His naked chest was placed on my naked chest, between my breasts. He snuggled in there happily, with one of my hands on his bottom to keep him secure. It felt like he belonged there.
The feeling of his warm skin against mine, his little chest going up and down was exhilarating. For the first time, there was no clear plastic box between us. I could touch him properly, breathe in his wonderful smell, and he could touch me and breathe in my smell.
Nurses kept a close eye to whisk him back to his incubator again should something go wrong. They had no need to: he was perfectly happy, with a good temperature and stats. His oxygen requirement gradually reduced during the period of our cuddles. None of his ‘bad’ alarms pinged. If only he could have stayed there forever.
Despite the shattering news I had received earlier that afternoon, after that cuddle I felt on top of the world. I was exhilarated, ecstatic, the mummy hormones were blooming.
We shared several blissful cuddles during the last week of Hugo’s life. He would be tucked down a breastfeeding top: I would sing to him and he would happily boogie along, wriggling his little body and kicking his strong little feet against my chest.
He would often explore the skin of my breast with one hand, and I would joke that he was trying to get to his favourite mummy milk the quick way. It was also like he was cuddling me back.
I could hear him suck, and I used a mirror to watch him open his eyes to gaze out on the world. I was so proud of my incredible little boy.
Daddy enjoyed cuddles with Hugo too. I wondered what our son made of the texture of his daddy’s hairy chest. Hugo didn’t seem to mind though – our mischievous boy loved to play, usually grabbing his wires, and during their cuddles he would tug on tufts of his daddy’s chest hair.
Skin-to-skin, or kangaroo care as it is also known, is often used for the care of pre-term and small babies in developing countries where there is a shortage of incubators and other vital equipment. It success at improving survival rates of these babies is proven.
Kangaroo care is also widely used in neonatal units in the developed world to help parents bond with their babies in such a strange and disempowering environment. With the very sickest babies, as Hugo was, it can only done when it is clinically appropriate and needs to be managed carefully.
Hugo loved his cuddles when he got in to them – most of his nurses recognised that and did everything they could to facilitate them. A couple of nurses, however, were less confident about what would happen if things should go wrong and were reticent. A chat with the Matron helped resolve the issue.
I’m glad, because those cuddles were the most magical and precious times of my whole life.
Sadly not all the love and cuddles in the world could be enough for Hugo. He had developed chronic lung disease and he was too premature and small to fight any more.
At the age of 35 days, Hugo spent his last moments in his favourite place, snuggled cosily between his mummy’s boobs.
No words can ever adequately describe that heartbreak.
I am, however, comforted by the memories and the photographs of my champion boy with his skin against mine. I can still feel him there sometimes.
Skin-to-skin contact with my darling boy created the best of times out of the very worst experience any mother can imagine.