Claire recalls the familiar corridor leading to the Special Care Nursery, being wheeled in on a hospital bed to meet her baby for the first time.
She’d made this same journey three years earlier, balancing feelings of fear and excitement, when baby Sacha was born almost seven weeks prematurely.
“It never occurred to me that we’d have an earlier baby than our first, because everything was fine,” said Claire, of her second pregnancy.
Baby Shiloh slept in one of 12 tiny cots, in The Wesley Hospital’s Special Care Nursery, where dedicated midwives provide care for sick and premature babies from 32 weeks gestation. It can be a daunting environment for new parents. But for Claire, it was a place that represented hope, where both of her babies spent their first weeks.
“We took seven years to have our first baby. I went through IVF and ended up at The Wesley with ovarian hyper stimulation. Overnight, I put on five litres of fluid around my vital organs in response to the hormones from IVF. I’d already been through all of that… and we thought we weren’t going to have children. We’d had lots of miscarriages. But they both ended up being conceived naturally and were both total surprises.” said Claire.
“We were just happy to be pregnant and happy to get that far. I guess, having a premmie baby… well we were just happy to have any baby.”
Claire’s first pregnancy was a challenging one. At 17 weeks Claire was diagnosed with Placenta Previa, a condition where the placenta covers the mother’s cervix.
After a bleed at 20 weeks, Claire spent much of her pregnancy on bed rest.
“Our aim was to make it to 28 weeks but I was able to stay home until about 31 weeks and then I was at The Wesley for another two weeks, before giving birth.”
Claire said it helped knowing that a premature birth was likely, so they had time to get their heads around it.
“We felt like we’d prepared... but nothing prepares you for the day the doctor walks in and says ‘it has to be now’,” said Claire.
Sacha was born on 13 July 2016 via emergency caesarean, at just over 33 weeks, weighing 2.2kg.
He spent five weeks in The Wesley’s Special Care Nursery before going home to meet Nanny, the family’s maremma sheepdog.
In comparison, Claire’s pregnancy with Shiloh was relatively easy, apart from what she describes as a ‘small blip’ at 17 weeks, when there were signs of pre-term labour.
“I didn’t have Placenta Previa this time around and I was fine right up until four days before Shiloh was born, when I developed a temperature.”
“I was thinking ‘oh no it’s going to be fine, I’m only 32 weeks’, even though contractions were just two minutes apart by the time we left home,” said Claire.
“I didn’t really pack a bag. I chucked in a pair of pyjamas just in case I had to stay overnight. I got there and everyone was being far more serious about these contractions than I thought!
“They did their best to keep me from having the baby, while steroids helped the baby’s lungs to develop for pre-term birth.”
Four days later, Claire started to have contractions again.
“At 1am on Tuesday morning my obstetrician Dr Pauline Joubert said ‘I think we better have this baby while he’s still well’. I thought that one o’clock in the morning seemed like a strange time and presumed we’d just wait until the morning.’
But Claire realised things were going to happen quickly when the obstetrician asked how far away her husband Seamus was.
Seamus made it in time and Shiloh was born 8 weeks early, on 4 June 2019 at 3.33am, weighing 2.2kg.
“When you have an early baby you don’t get to cuddle them straight away; they can’t put them on your chest like they do for a traditional birth, I suppose. But to know that he’s just in the next room and to be able to go and look at him and talk to him is comforting.”
Claire wasn’t able to have her first cuddle with baby Shiloh until he was five days old.
“It’s stressful to see your baby with CPAP assisted breathing, seeing him hooked up to the wires and nasal gastric tube, while you’re unable to hold them… but you keep reminding yourself it’s essential.
“It felt like a really long five days. Sacha was three days old - and that was long, but we didn’t have anything to compare it to. That was the only part of the journey that was harder this time around.”
Another hurdle for many mums of premature babies is waiting for their milk to come in.
“As a premmie mum you only have one useful job for your baby in those first few days, and it is to express and feed them. So to not be able to do that job, when you’re at a stage when you can’t bath them or hold them or take them home…. it is so hard.”
It was challenges like these that made the highs even more exhilarating for Claire and Seamus.
“The day that you get to hold them twice in a day, or when they’re well enough that you can hold them for two hours, instead of one. That’s pretty amazing.”
Claire recalls a defining moment when Shiloh moved from his isolette into an open cot.
“As soon as I bought in the clothes I wanted to dress Shiloh in, he suddenly felt a lot more like my baby… to be the mum and make the decisions. I felt very supported to do that regardless, but it’s a decisive little step in the journey.”
Claire said even though Shiloh was born younger than Sacha, he seems to have grown better on the outside.
“He has been more well, more robust, a better feeder. I think part of that is having been through the experience before, feeling more relaxed and knowing everyone here. At least you know if they’re in Special Care they are getting the best babysitters ever on the planet! Ultimately I think we’ve been really, really privileged.”
Sacha is now three and delighted to be a big brother.
“He came in and saw Shiloh for the first time in the isolette and said hello to him six times. When he got no response, he looked at us and said ‘mummy, the baby’s not working yet’, and I thought ‘never a truer word spoken!’”
To look at Sacha, you’d never know that he was a premature baby: he is in the 93rd percentile for height for his age.
“All kids do things in their own time. You stop telling people they were premmie after a couple of months and just enjoy the age and stage that they’re at… because they thrive,” said Claire.
“There’s a cute little blonde human in there. He is healthy and thriving.”
Sacha took his baby brother Shiloh home from hospital with mum and dad on 11 July 2019, 18 days before Shiloh’s due date.
Claire said going home from Special Care is bittersweet as you don’t get to see the lovely people that filled your days and cared for your child at their most vulnerable.
“Our experience at The Wesley has been amazing. I think it’s a privilege to be here and it’s nice there are so many of the staff we had the first time. It feels like family,” said Claire.
“You can sit there and look at the negatives and feel all depressed or you can sit there and think ‘well we’re very fortunate to have these two beautiful boys’.”