Anyone who has had a premature baby will know how disempowering the experience feels. Your baby will probably in an incubator, be attached to all kinds of bleeping machines and you will probably have to check it is ok to touch them.
Nothing like you expected parenthood to be.
There is, however something that preemie parents can do that will help you all: singing.
Like many expectant mums, I enjoyed singing to my bump. While singing, I would envision singing the same nursery rhymes to my baby in a few months’ time, rocking them to sleep or bouncing them on my knee.
Like many expectant mums, I never expected to give birth prematurely. My son Hugo arrived at just 24 weeks by emergency Caeasarean section because I had preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome.
Hugo weighed just 420 grams when he was born. He hated being handled, and he was four weeks old before we were able to enjoy a skin-to-skin cuddle.
In the meantime, we made do with comfort holding (gently placing your hands on your baby’s head and bottom while they are in the incubator), and helping with nappy changing and washing. Those things helped me feel a bit more like a proper mummy.
I particularly enjoyed singing to Hugo. No one told me to sing to him: it came naturally to me on the night I first met him. I sang the same nursery rhymes that I sang when Hugo was still in my belly: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star; Baa Baa Black Sheep; and How Much is that Doggy in the Window. It was always these three songs, in that order. They became something of a ritual, or superstition.
The way my singing could calm Hugo was clearly evident. I remember one day when Hugo kept desaturating (his stats were lowering in a bad way, which makes the machines ring in a cacophony of alarms) I would gently sing to him and his stats would rise. The nurse said she had never seen a baby respond so well to their parent’s singing – that was an incredible feeling I will never forget. You so often feel utterly helpless when your baby is in an incubator, and to be able to do something that has a tangible effect on your baby’s well being is wonderful.
Not only would Hugo be calmed by my singing, he also moved around to it. While his nurses nicknamed our son ‘Hugo Boss’ because of his feisty personality, we, his parents liked to call him ‘Boogie Woogie Hugie’ on account of his wriggling to my singing.
I took videos on my mobile phone of Hugo’s wriggle dances. Watching them when I wasn’t in the unit with my baby was a great comfort, and helped me to still feel connected to him. I felt so proud that my son knew who his Mummy is, even though we were separated and most of his care was done by nurses, rather than by me.
This video is one of my two favourites. Do take a moment to watch it – it is less than a minute long. He is rocking out to the nursery rhyme mega mix, and even does air guitar at one point! Hugo was nine days old in the video: his skin is still red and thin.
My other favourite video is of Hugo and I enjoying a skin-to-skin cuddle: he opens his eyes and boogies away to my singing. I remember his little feet kicking my chest. It is more difficult to see him moving though, because he is covered by a blanket.
I was pleased to see that the benefit my singing had for Hugo is backed up by scientific research. The study showed that the babies’ heartrate improved when sung to by their mothers, especially during skin-to-skin care – and that “babies do best when mothers are allowed to be mothers.”
So, if you currently have a baby in a neonatal unit and haven’t yet tried singing to them, give it a go! It doesn’t really matter what you sing. It doesn’t matter how good your singing voice is – as you can hear from the video, I am unlikely to be securing a recording contract any time soon.
If you are able, I would highly recommend taking lots of videos as well as photos. As I have described above, watching the videos is an invaluable way of feeling connected to your baby when you are away from the unit.
If you are fortunate to be able to take your baby home, the videos will form a part of the record of your baby’s journey, and your child will be able to marvel over how tiny they once were.
If, like me, your baby died, the videos are a bittersweet way to remember the time you spent together. Hugo died in my arms aged 35 days. Every possible treatment was tried, but he was too small and premature.
I treasure the photos and videos of my super champion boy.