I’ll start with a confession: this is the first PREMvember I’ve been aware of. My wife Jen gave birth to our daughter Hannah in February, just over three months prior to her due date in May. Jen had developed pre-eclampsia and the risk to both her and baby were sufficient that delivery was the only option. Before that, I couldn’t have told you where the regional NICU was, or even that the N stood for Neonatal. The world of neonatal nursing, medicine lay completely in my blindspot for 31 years, until I was introduced to my daughter lying in her ‘womb with a view’. The incubator had been acquired, a plaque on one side informed me, through a fundraising effort by the Tamara McCallion Trust. The internet later informed me that Tamara had survived birth at 24 weeks in 2002 and that her mother Liz later raised enough donations to procure an additional incubator on the ward. I found her story comforting, even in as much as to say, whatever road we were about to walk down, others had walked it before us.

Today, Hannah ate stewed apples for breakfast before Jen breastfed her. Jen returned to work this week: we’re sharing parental leave so I’ve been getting into the swing of full-time parenthood and steadily realising how easy I had it at my job all these months! In the afternoon, we did some messages in town, stopping along the way for a coffee for Daddy and a bottle of Mummy’s expressed milk for Hannah.
With her return to work, this week has been the first in several months when Jen has needed to express regularly. Getting Hannah accustomed to the breast became a priority for us in the final month of her stay in ICU. We noticed that when out of her incubator for skin-to-skin cuddles, she had begun rooting (on both parents!) So, with the support of the nurses and breastfeeding coordinator, she began regular “working cuddles” with Jen. Some of which showed promise while others were simply, as one nurse put it “a lick and a sniff”.

For her first month at home, Jen continued to express and Hannah took her milk from bottles, while continuing to get ever more regular exposure to the breast. There was a lot of trial and error with nipple shields, different schedules, and some days were tough on all concerned. But eventually, in early July, the dynamic duo got to a point where she was no longer hungry for bottle top-ups and we were confident she was getting all she needed.

As the Dad/non-feeding parent, it is easy to feel out of the loop. The most helpful I can be, I think, is to be open to talking and listening, be a sounding board and affirm Jen’s judgement. One great piece of advice I got was to establish some rituals that represent ‘Daddy time’, like bath time, reading time and outdoor walks. This has the double-effect of letting Hannah bond with her Daddy and letting her Mummy catch a breather!

Hannah began weaning in September and took to fruit and veg almost immediately and has since progressed to trying eggs, chicken and porridge. She has a three square meal routine with milk afterwards and in between. She doesn’t always go for the first thing she’s offered: I’ve had once-white tops end up a tie-dye tapestry of avocado, banana and sweet potato, but she gives everything at least two chances and has yet to definitively reject anything. Some days are difficult as her digestive system gets to grips with lots of new challenges, so puréed prunes are never too far from reach. But however difficult a given day is for any of the three of us, I have to remind myself that every day for us is the best case scenario: the most we could have ever dared to hope for in late February was that a given day in November would spent contending with ‘regular baby problems’- getting her to nap, poo and how much pink is too much.
So how is it being the Dad of a premature baby? To me, she’s just Hannah and she’s been our wee fighter ever since she came into the world at just 1lb7. I am reminded of her prematurity every day, most often when I’m asked how old she is and I have to decide on the spot whether to say eight months or five. (Once Jen and I gave two different answers when asked by a friendly stranger, who must have wondered if she belonged to us at all!) But it’s not on my mind constantly, because there’s always too much joy in the moment to dwell on what’s behind us, except in pausing to be grateful.

I’m grateful for our amazing parents, families and friends, and for the endless support they’ve given us this year. I’m grateful for the professionalism and kindness of all the nursing and medical team that treated Jen and Hannah. I’m grateful to the Tiny Life charity for providing parents with an opportunity to share experiences and resources. Most especially, I’m grateful every single day for Hannah and Jen, the two incredible women I’m privileged to spend my life with.

Bringing Hannah home is a memory that I still get emotional thinking about. Jen and I went for a walk before driving to the hospital and the call came from the ICU confirming we could bring in the car seat. In that moment, a weight I hadn’t noticed accumulating over 90 or so days lifted and then relief gave way to excitement. A few hours later I was driving very carefully along the familiar route from the hospital to our house, while a sleepy little Hannah held her Mummy’s hand in the back. If ever an end was really a beginning…

Jon M, Belfast