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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Peter holding Lucy just after her birth.
world prematurity day

'Until you have a premature baby, you don't know what you're up against'

Today is World Prematurity Day.

EVERY YEAR, 4,500 babies are born prematurely.

That means that once every two hours a baby is born before 40 weeks of their mother being pregnant. Survival rates depend on the time a baby was born, with children born at 23 weeks having a 29% chance of survival and babies born at 32-33 weeks having a 95% chance.

For parents the birth of a child prematurely can be a scary and worrisome time.

To mark World Prematurity Day today, the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance (INHA) will today launch its new educational guide, Next Steps…the Journey Home.

One person who has a lot of experience with the issue is Peter Walsh. He and his wife Yvonne have two daughters – five-year-old Sarah Anne and 23-month-old Lucy. Both were born premature.

Peter tells that the arrival of Sarah Anne caught the couple off-guard.

“I was washing my hands in work and the phone went off in my pocket. Someone fished it out for me and it was Yvonne’s mother on the phone saying get to the hospital, the baby’s coming.

“I just said it can’t be, the baby’s not due for months. I dropped what I was doing and got to the hospital, but this was a total curveball for us.

“When I got to the hospital, I was expecting to see clipboards and doctors everywhere.

We were told there was a possibility of miscarriage if the baby wasn’t delivered and it had to be done the following day, so I was sent home.

At home, Peter says he focused on the things that he could control.

“I was very much just keeping the head down and putting a brave face on it because there’s people out there who had been through a lot worse. I was more worried about small things like Yvonne’s car being in the hospital – just trying to keep the wheels turning.

“The delivery itself was all over very fast. We’re conditioned that you have in your head how it’s going to go, but when Sarah Anne was born, I went over for about five seconds and could see tiny little legs kicking. And then she was whisked off.

After telling the family, including his sister in America, Peter was brought to see his daughter.

She was just this tiny little baby, just 2lbs. She was covered in wires and wasn’t She was raw flesh, not really a baby colour. It shows you how tough the babies are.

“The first three days were mad. You go on autopilot and do what you have to do. It was tough on Yvonne, she was up on the ward and everyone else had their baby, but she didn’t. I would be trying to keep her mind off things.

“You have this picture painted in your mind and it goes the complete opposite way.

She was pregnant one minute and the baby was out the next but there was nothing to hold.

The first year of Sarah Anne’s life was difficult for the couple; because of Sarah Anne’s suppressed immune system they couldn’t bring her outdoors and they couldn’t have guests over.

WhatsApp Image 2017-11-17 at 10.48.54

“The first year was quite tough because she had no immune system. You couldn’t just run out – simple things like getting milk became an operation. People would want to be coming up and you had to be very selective about who could come up. And people could get offended by that because they can’t understand.

Until you have a premature baby, you don’t know what you’re up against.

“I was glad to get the first year out of the way. Yvonne was going through counselling and you go from going to the cinema two to three times a week and eating out to not leaving the house for a year.

“We went out once in that year.

“You look at your friends and everything is going so smoothly and you start to blame yourself but you can’t live like that.”

With the birth of their younger daughter, Lucy, the Walshes were more prepared medically, but Peter says that nothing fully prepares you for a premature birth.

“We knew the second time around with Lucy it was going to happen. Yvonne had been in hospital for a month and I found this new level of respect for single parents – I don’t know how they do it.

Lucy was six weeks early and was double the weight of Sarah Ann, but was still only 4lbs. But there was no panic and there wasn’t the same type of alarm bells. We knew a lot more.

Having come through their early arrivals, both girls are doing well, Peter says.

Sarah Anne started school this year and will be six next year. Lucy turns two next month.

WhatsApp Image 2017-11-17 at 10.49.48 Lucy will turn two next month.

For parents who are going through a premature birth, Peter has some advice.

“You can’t prepare for something like this, you’re going to be on autopilot – but just let it happen. Don’t be hard on yourself and enjoy the little things.

It’s a long road – but you’re doing fine.

The INHA guide will be published from 8am this morning.

Read: More than 27,000 fathers have taken paternity leave so far

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