Separated from my son – Leah’s story

Leah's son Toby was born at 30 weeks. She describes what it felt like leaving him after she'd been discharged.

My NICU experience came at me like a tonne of bricks at a 100 miles an hour.

I'd had the most perfect pregnancy but then one night, when I was 30 weeks pregnant, I developed pains. I rang the midwife and she asked me to go to the hospital for a check-up.

“You won't be in labour,” she said.

I'd sent my partner to work because I thought nothing was going to be wrong. But it turned out that I was 1cm dilated and this baby was on its way – much sooner than he was meant to be. I didn't have the best experience in the hospital that day. Even though I was in labour, my partner was asked to leave after a certain time and I was left feeling scared and alone.

At 5:13am I gave birth to a tiny 3lb 5oz little human. I was instantly in love. We named him Toby. I felt this pang of yearning to have him with me but he was whisked away to the NICU before I could get a proper look or a cuddle.

I'd never stepped foot in a NICU before and I'd never seen a baby hooked up to machines so it was shock to see mine with wires everywhere and a blue lamp over him. I wasn't able to hold Toby until later that night. It was hard to feel like a normal mum in this environment; I kept wondering what I’d done wrong and how we ended up here.

When I did finally hold Toby, I got that pang again. The pang that told me this is where I should be now - with my boy in my arms. I got discharged after two days and was sent home. This was the most distressing part for me because I didn't understand why I couldn't stay if my baby was still in hospital. I couldn't accept it. I barely slept at home and longed for morning to arrive so I could return to my son’s side.

It felt completely unnatural and wrong to leave Toby each night. I needed to be with him. I needed to be his mammy. I didn't realise this affected me so much until long after he was home. I felt I could never leave him again, like I had to do in the hospital.

Whilst Toby was in hospital, I didn't talk much about how I was feeling because I knew no one would be able to change what was happening. I wanted to stay with him and that would have been the only thing that could have made me feel better. I now know looking back, I should have spoken to my family about how I felt. They are so supportive and even though they couldn't change things they may have opened my eyes to the bigger picture. It's hard to do that yourself when you're are in that NICU bubble.

I had planned on breastfeeding Toby once he was born for the first few months, this changed when he was born early. I was asked to express as much as I could for him to be tube fed. I did but this got me more down. This wasn't the experience I'd anticipated. I felt like I was forcing my body to produce milk because I knew it was the best thing for Toby. But my brain was going crazy as it wasn't getting the signals and endorphins it would have done from a baby being there rather than a machine. I continued for three weeks but my mental health was really suffering every time I even saw the machine. So I decided to stop. I felt guilty but I wanted to be strong for my boy and this was making me weaker.

My advice to parents on the NICU is to speak to your family about your feelings and what's going on. Even though they can't change what's happening they can help keep you sane. Even down to making sure you get a slice of toast before you leave for the hospital as this might be the only thing you eat all day. I had an amazing family support system around me and still do. This made me and my parents even closer and they have an amazing bond with Toby which is fantastic. They were there for us through our NICU journey and I couldn't ask for anything more.

Toby has just recently turned one. He's the most amazing little boy and wouldn't change a thing. I definitely think the experience made us who we are today.

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