A summer in the neonatal unit: Part 1

Normal Mummy jobs

After a few weeks when we had got past living by the hour, I began to find my feet. I had my little routine and found my ‘Mummy jobs’ to do. At last, I started to feel like a real Mummy and the sense that I had been denied many of the pleasures I imagined would result from becoming a Mum of twins began to fade.

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I used to get excited when the laundry bag was full of muslin cloths and clothes covered in blood or nappy leaks. I loved it at home when they had Charlotte’s and Esme’s scents on them. The clean ones I used to smell and if I was missing them really badly, I would take them to bed with me. Connor and I still laugh to this day, that Charlotte’s incubator and muslin cloths smelt beautiful and sweet whereas Esme’s used to stink. Sorry Esme! I was disappointed if the laundry bag was half full.  I loved being able to do something that a mummy would be doing if she brought her newborn baby home. It upset me if a toy fell on the floor as I felt these toys kept the girls company and looked after them when I wasn’t there (especially the elephants who were named after my Grandad). It was the little silly things like this that helped keep me sane.

I spent quite a lot of time rearranging and folding their clothes and muslin cloths in their trolleys. I imagined doing this if they were at home. I would make sure they both had a variety of colours of muslin cloths to make their incubators look pretty. Just like their nursery at home would be. I enjoyed selecting two muslin cloths which went together; one for them to lie on and one to wrap around their nest. Whenever I arrived in the morning, I admired (and approved) of the choice of muslin cloths chosen by the nurses if their sheets needed changing. I felt flattered when the nurses complimented me on how many pretty things the girls had.

I would watch carefully and ask how the nurses made the nests and kept their incubators so tidy. They had a way of making the girls look so cosy and comfortable. At times I felt a little envious of their skill and also competitive to make my nest just as good as theirs. I think there was also a bit of competition between the nurses about who made the best nest. I always asked if I could help the nurses change the sheets in the incubators. It felt such a privilege when a nurse asked if I wanted to lift Charlotte whilst she changed the sheet. On previous days the nurses had done the lifting. I was very grateful to be involved. The breathing tube and all the wires made it a bit tricky to get my hands smoothly under their head and bottom but with determination, I soon mastered it.

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When a nurse asked if I had any clothes for them, I got so excited and told her this hadn’t even crossed my mind. I didn’t mind them being in their nappies, if that’s what kept them comfortable but the nurses informed me the girls would quite like to wear clothes. I had no idea you could buy clothes so small and she suggested going to the local Asda store which sold premature baby clothes. I couldn’t wait to go shopping.  When I arrived at Asda the feelings of excitement left me. I looked at all the newborn baby clothes and felt sad my girls were far from fitting these. I hoped and prayed that one day my girls would get to wear them. I was impressed with the range of premature baby clothes that Asda had to offer and selected two sets of vests and sleepsuits in the smallest size; under three pounds.

The feelings of hope and sadness disappeared when I brought the freshly washed clothes into the neonatal ward the following day. The nurses loved the clothes I bought and instantly made me feel happier and so proud of how far my girls had come. I took great pleasure in choosing which vest or sleepsuit Charlotte and Esme should wear. I asked the nurses to help me dress them, careful not to trap any wires.

Charlotte

Esme

Whenever I got the opportunity I would do both their cares. In the early days I did feel petrified of hurting them and that my heart stopped whenever the alarm went off.  The first time I did Charlotte’s cares and lifted her legs up to do her nappy, and was slightly horrified to see that she had no bottom. It was just wrinkly skin. It reminded me of an elephant’s bottom, without the tail of course. The nurse reassured me it was perfectly normal at this gestation and the muscle would develop.

The girls’ cares were done twice a day. The nurses were brilliant and asked when I phoned in the morning what time I’d be coming in so they could save doing their cares for me.  If Connor was with me I would let him choose who he wanted to do. He often chose Esme as Charlotte was very poorly and he was worried about hurting her. I used to enjoy getting everything ready and preparing it on the top of the trolley. This was something I had learnt from the nurses. I would start with their mouth care. This involved using a foam mouth swab, dipped in some expressed breast milk then attempting to get it in their mouths and swirl it around. This is not an easy job when their ventilation tube is in the way. I would then use warm water and cotton wool to carefully clean their eyes. When the girls were a few weeks old, an octenisan wipe was used to clean the head and body. Neither of the girls liked it but Charlotte hated it. I couldn’t believe how cross she would get. Her machine would start alarming loudly and she would give me such a glare. I had to watch her carefully as many times she would try grabbing her ventilation tube and pulling it out in anger. We could tell from this point onwards we were going to have our hands full with this little one. Then I would do their nappies, which were weighed each time they were changed. Connor and I soon got used to putting our hands through the incubator’s windows and dodging all the wires to efficiently accomplish our girls’ cares.

I enjoyed doing their cares. I talked to them all the time and explained what I was doing. I became more and more confident at handling them, knowing what pressures to use and learning to ignore the alarms but focus upon what the girls were doing. I felt I was doing a good job as a Mummy and (felt) proud when I was finished and they were nice and clean and lying in freshly washed sheets. I imagined that they felt safer lying on the muslin cloths as the smell would remind them of their Mummy and Daddy. I had to ignore the little voice in my head that said I wanted so desperately to pick them up, squeeze them tightly and plant a big kiss on their foreheads as I had to accept this was how my life and my girls’ lives were to be . I didn’t want to regret spending each day wishing it was different or imagining what it would have been like if they were born at full term as that didn’t happen. That was not my story.

Precious time with my girls

I’d love to know how many steps I took between Charlotte’s and Esme’s incubators. I made sure I split my time evenly. We were lucky that the neonatal team kept them together as there was a time when Esme was in high dependency and Charlotte was in intensive care. I loved looking in the incubators and studying all their features. They were definitely different yet had so many features the same, like their noses, shape of their mouths, their fingers. When I spoke to my friends the only way they could tell them apart was by their buddy blankets. One morning I came in and loved it that Esme had wriggled all the way to the bottom of the incubator. The nurse informed me she had been like that all morning. I opened the door to say “Hello” and she kicked her foot straight out of it. “Yikes” I thought, she nearly jumped out there, the little rascal.

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Esme

My absolute favourite time of the day was when the nurses got the girls out for skin to skin. Unfortunately one of them was always too poorly for it to be possible to hold them both at the same time. I didn’t mind this too much as I imagined I would have plenty of time for this when I got them home. A lot of thought went into transferring Charlotte or Esme from their incubators onto me in the smoothest, least disruptive manoeuvre. There were many wires and tubes to be mindful of and it was difficult to stop my heart racing when the alarm sounded loudly because the nurse had detached something. The nurses must have seen my anxious face each time and were exceedingly good at telling me everything was ok and not to worry, let them do the worrying. Connor took a little more calming and often joked that we should stop everything right there and leave them in the incubator; his heart couldn’t handle it. I told him to stop being silly, I was getting my cuddles.

I would sit for hours giving my girls a cuddle. They would fit down the neck of my t-shirt and then the nurses would tape the breathing tubes to my skin or clothes. A lot of tape was used to secure the tubes and the nurses were very apologetic that it was going to hurt when it was removed. This was the least of my worries and I told them to use as much tape as needed. It was daunting in the early days when transferring Charlotte or Esme as the nurses had to disconnect the breathing tube and one nurse would do the ventilation by hand. I would sit in excited desperation to feel Charlotte or Esme against my skin and in my arms.  As soon as they were picked up by the nurses, they would look tinier and even more fragile. I would study how the nurses handled them and felt lucky that my babies were being looked after by such caring and attentive people.

When the nurses were happy that the girls had settled into their cuddle and their numbers on the machines were all good, I started to relax. I quickly learnt to ignore the feelings of being sh*t scared that Esme or particularly Charlotte would stop breathing and die in my arms and we trusted the nurses that they were both fine. They were indeed fine and once they’d wriggled into a comfy position against my chest it was clear from their content faces and their oxygen saturation levels that they were super cosy.

During the hours I was holding my girls, I would forget how critically ill they were. I loved giving one a cuddle whilst keeping a beady eye on her sister. The nurses made me feel at ease and I enjoyed reclining in the arm chair, putting my feet up and either telling them all about my day or reading them a story. I enjoyed it when the nurses and sisters would come and chat to me. I enjoyed it too when the consultants came over but always remained a little wary they were going to tell me some bad news, Over the summer I felt I had made many new friends. The neonatal staff were all so friendly, welcoming and openhearted.  

Despite having a numb bum and my arms aching, I never wanted the moment of holding them close, feeling their soft skin on mine, the sound of their breathing or being able to kiss them, to end. I had to be very self-controlled not to give them a big bear hug and squeeze them tightly. Unfortunately, the cuddles also made my milk come in and by the time the girls were ready to go back into their incubators, my boobs were as hard as rocks. Luckily I had only one instance of saturating my breast pads and having to hold my arms at an awkward angle for the rest of the afternoon.

I loved watching Connor holding Charlotte and Esme. He didn’t hold Charlotte for a while as she was so poorly and he was nervous. I felt so proud watching him as a Daddy and enjoyed relaxing in an armchair next to him, chatting about how his day at work had been and all my plans about decorating the house. He was distracted and likely not to be listening to anything I was wittering on about. I thought this was an ideal opportunity to get him to agree to any of my plans, what colours I was going to use and what money I needed to spend. Crafty, I know but often mission accomplished!  As he was holding Charlotte or Esme and didn’t dare to move a muscle, I had to button up his shirt around the girls. He would often curse and scold me if I undid too many buttons (accidentally on purpose) for fear of the nurses seeing his hairy chest. He gets embarrassed far too easily.

On many days, Charlotte or Esme would be too poorly to hold, or sometimes the ward was too short staffed to be able to get one of the girls out of the incubators for a cuddle safely. On those days, I happily settled with comfort holding.  I would spend hours sitting awkwardly on a high stool or standing in a strange position with my hands through the incubator windows. I sang once to Charlotte then got far too embarrassed to do it again as I am completely tone deaf. My hands would feel so big and clumsy cupping their tiny heads.  I enjoyed feeling their little fingers wrap around mine and would tell them what I’d been up to that morning and about Hattie and Mila (our dogs) and about all their family and friends who couldn’t wait to meet them. Connor loved playing a game with Esme in which he held his hand by her feet and she would always find it and press her feet against the palm of his hand and curl her toes around the top of his index finger. It took me a long time not to feel I had to ask the nurse’s permission to do comfort holding with the girls. I was scared of doing anything that could jeopardise their recovery or even, at times, their lives.

The consultant had told us that recent research had shown reading to premature babies can aid their progress. I went home and that evening ordered twenty books whilst expressing, this included the Roald Dahl collection (our childhood favourites).  I read to the girls whilst cuddling them and also during comfort holding when they were too poorly to come out of their incubators. I would put one hand in the incubator to hold theirs and use the other to turn the pages. After hearing about this research I knew the importance of the girls hearing my voice. However I often found it difficult wondering what to say to them. When I did get stuck for words I would look at my girls and be hit by a sudden realisation that I was looking at my very poorly, tiny babies. These moments hit me hard and I would just cry. I didn’t want this to happen every time I spoke to my girls so reading stories really helped me.

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