Our Babies Were Born Prematurely. This Is What We Want You To Know

“When it happens you are faced with the unknown – or worse, tiny bits of information you've garnered from films or books."
BSIP via Getty Images

“The birth was very traumatic,” says Destiny Ovar, 27, recalling her son Leo’s premature birth at 30 weeks in the height of the Covid pandemic.

The office manager from Kent had been diagnosed with the rare pregnancy complication vasa previa, so was in hospital being monitored when one night she woke up and discovered she was covered in blood.

Ovar was given a type of anaesthetic called a spinal block so she could have an emergency caesarean section, but it failed so she still felt pain.

The experience went from bad to worse when surgeons had to cut through her placenta to get her baby out.

“Me and Leo [her son] both lost a lot of blood and he had to be resuscitated,” she says.

“I only saw him for a matter of seconds before he was whisked off to another hospital.”

Due to the pandemic, the fraught mum wasn’t able to be transferred with her baby, so she didn’t see him for two days. “It was a time of terror and pain as opposed to happiness,” she says.

There are lots of things Ovar wishes she’d known back then like, for example, that babies can be given donor breast milk that is safe and beneficial to their health.

When her son was transferred to a different hospital, she was asked if he could have donor milk and said no because she didn’t know anything about it.

But knowing what she knows now – that the donor milk is rigorously screened and from a single donor, ensuring full traceability – she would do things differently, especially as human breast milk has huge benefits for premature babies. In fact, data suggests that it reduces the risk of necrotising enterocolitis (a serious gastrointestinal problem) by as much as 79%.

Ovar says she doesn’t actually know what Leo was fed in those two days when she was separated from him – but unfortunately he developed necrotising enterocolitis at one-day-old.

“Feeding them with breastmilk can help prevent it, so knowing what I know now, I would have said yes [to the donor milk],” she says. “I wish I knew more at the time so I could have made a more informed decision.”

Destiny Ovar's son Leo.
Destiny Ovar
Destiny Ovar's son Leo.

The best milk for premature babies is often from their mother, which can mean new mums end up expressing milk and taking it to their babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

For lots of families – who otherwise feel helpless – it’s one way to feel like they’re doing something when their babies are being cared for by others.

During the five weeks that Leo remained in hospital in 2020, Ovar and her partner would take it in turns to visit as only one person was allowed to be with him at any given time due to strict Covid rules. She says it “made things really difficult”.

“We would do 12-hour shifts at the hospital – me doing the day and my partner doing the night. Due to having a c-section I wasn’t allowed to drive, so my dad would take me to the hospital around 7am and pick me up at 7pm.”

Her partner would travel to the hospital during the times when her dad was dropping or picking her up, so they rarely saw each other save for the odd snatched coffee in a local Costa together.

She says the hardest part of it all was being separated from her baby and leaving the hospital each night without him.

“It didn’t feel right for us to leave Leo there alone for long periods,” she says. “When I was at home through the night I would wake up to pump milk for him and take it the next morning. This really made me feel like I was doing something towards his care.”

Destiny and her son Leo in NICU.
Destiny Ovar
Destiny and her son Leo in NICU.

Dolly Emmerson-Smith, 34, was also determined to breastfeed her son who made a very unexpected appearance at 31 weeks in 2021, following what she describes as a “textbook” and low-risk pregnancy.

In order to be able to keep the hospital stocked with breastmilk for her tiny bundle, she had to express every three hours day and night.

The publishing production manager explains that this, paired with travelling to and from the hospital for visits, avoiding busy parking times, and going home so her partner could work a few hours to keep his contract job, meant they were often at the hospital by 6.30am and leaving at 9pm or later.

The 34-year-old says she spent a lot of her pregnancy researching potential birth outcomes but never really touched upon prematurity.

“It’s not something I feel that is openly discussed or seen to be as common as it is in actuality,” she says, “so when it happens you are faced with the unknown – or worse, tiny bits of information that you have garnered from films or books: sickly babies that don’t survive.”

Dolly and her son.
Dolly Emmerson-Smith
Dolly and her son.

The new parents initially found it difficult to bond with their son when they weren’t with him, saying they felt more like visitors to him than parents. “But when we were with him we felt oddly calm,” she says.

It was the act of getting into a routine which helped them survive the three-and-a-half weeks her son was in hospital. During this time, she’d also bake cookies for the nurses – a small thing she could do to feel useful while they looked after her baby.

Babies are considered premature if they’re born before 37 weeks – and while it’s easy to fear they aren’t ready for life outside the womb at this point, Emmerson-Smith suggests they’re a lot stronger than they may seem.

“I think often premature babies are pictured in peoples’ minds as being a certain way: full of tubes, tiny and weak,” she says. “Although some of that is accurate – there often will be tubes, wires and masks, and more often than not they will be tiny – they are far from weak.”

It’s something she wants other parents of premature babies to know. “Your babies are fighters,” she says, and she’s also passionate to get across that fellow parents should know they have not caused their baby to be born early – particularly as there can be a lot of guilt around this.

“As a mum I would pass on the affirmation that you have done nothing wrong. This is easier said than believed as you cannot help but blame yourself or question if you caused it. I still do on occasion. It will take a lot of work and soul-searching, but you have to remind yourself that this isn’t your fault, sometimes these things just happen and your baby, with today’s medicine and unexplained miracles, often will be fine – or more than fine.”

That’s not, of course, to say everything is plain-sailing with the health of premature babies. Both mums said their babies experienced various health issues – and to this day, Ovar’s son Leo still has some ongoing respiratory issues and an unsafe swallow, but on the whole both babies are thriving and doing most of the things that toddlers do.

Dolly's son pictured in NICU.
Dolly Emmerson-Smith
Dolly's son pictured in NICU.

Between the endless visits to and from hospital, and the need to keep babies safe from infections, those first few months – and even years – after the birth can be a lonely place. Add a pandemic into the mix and it’s been so much tougher for new parents.

Because Emmerson-Smith’s son developed an immunity issue not long after being discharged from hospital, the family had to self-isolate for a further four months so as not to expose him to Covid.

“All of this, paired with people not knowing what to say or do, meant we didn’t have the expected family help or visits from friends,” she says. Instead, they faced being new parents on their own.

“I think the most challenging part was trying to explain to others the situation,” she continues. “It is very difficult to express how our days were and also for us to share what we were going through. Where do you start? We had to keep our heads down and crack on, but found that some people around us – especially after we got our son home – didn’t quite understand our caution.”

When a baby is born, most parents feel an overwhelming urge to wrap them up in cotton wool so they don’t pick up any nasty viruses at such a young age – but with premature babies, there is a very urgent need to keep them safe.

“As our son had an immunity issue we couldn’t just pass him around for cuddles and the impression sometimes given [by others] is we were being too protective,” says Emmerson-Smith.

The new parents had to turn down visits and family events, including a funeral and seeing an elderly family member who subsequently died.

“We had to make the right call for us and our baby. We know we were making the right decisions, especially rolling on a year and watching how well our son is doing, but at the time it was difficult not to bow down to pressure.”

She suggests people who haven’t nearly lost a baby at birth, or faced the uncertainty of their baby living in a hospital for weeks, cannot necessarily understand this laser focus on doing everything that must be done to keep them safe.

But she urges other parents of premature babies to listen to their instincts and stick to their guns.

Dolly and her son, who has grown up to be a happy, healthy toddler.
Dolly Emmerson-Smith
Dolly and her son, who has grown up to be a happy, healthy toddler.

When Ovar’s son Leo finally was allowed home, she was struggling with postnatal depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She describes living in a state of constant terror and was incredibly anxious about Leo’s health – but others didn’t really understand what she and her partner were going through.

“When Leo was first born he was quite unwell and doctors would never promise that he would be okay,” she says. “The experience was completely new to us and we never knew anyone that had a baby so early before, so didn’t have anyone we could speak to or relate to.”

Charities like Bliss, which supports parents of premature and sick children, have been a godsend to both mums. For parents in a similar position, Ovar recommends seeking support whether through charities or health professionals.

“I wish I did earlier,” she says. “It’s okay to admit you’re going through a challenging time and to feel emotional and voice that you may be struggling mentally. It’s a lot to process.”

A more recent photo of Destiny Ovar and her son Leo.
Destiny Ovar
A more recent photo of Destiny Ovar and her son Leo.

While lots of babies born prematurely are unexpected, some parents will know if their baby needs to be born earlier than usual, for instance if they have pregnancy complications – and in these instances, Ovar recommends doing plenty of research ahead of time so as not to feel blindsided.

“Ask to speak to neonatal doctors in the hospital, visit the NICU and ask any questions you may have,” she suggests. “Make sure you have them answered before you go home so you feel at ease.”

For any parents of premature babies reading this, the women are keen to convey that babies do grow up to be happy and healthy, and while there are some difficulties along the way, there are plenty of moments that shine.

“They are fighters,” says Emmerson-Smith. “They have felt and done more than most of us do in our whole lives. They have taught themselves to survive and thrive out of their environment.

“Your baby may look sick, it may seem scary with all the medical equipment, but they are just biding their time until they are ready to come home. They know what they are doing and are stronger than they look.”