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Middlesbrough Mum 

HelenHelen, mum of premature baby James, shares how books gave her strength and helped her to bond with her baby during the first few weeks of his life. 

Read the whole blog below, or follow the links to individual posts: 

Finding Bliss at James Cook University Hospital’s Neonatal Department
Bedtime stories anytime
Family reading
Incubating a song
Keeping calm
Home at last 

Finding Bliss at James Cook University Hospital’s Neonatal Department

No one plans for their baby to be born early. Definitely not at 28 weeks and only weighing 2lbs. You plan all sorts of things, names, clothes, where you want to take him or her. You have all the normal worries too – I know I did. But nothing prepares you for an emergency C-section and a tiny, tiny baby. But that’s what happened to me. Thankfully we are both doing well. James is now 72 days old and is already 6lb 6oz – which means he’s doing really well.

I wanted to write this to tell a story. Not mine and James’ but a story about stories because as well as my family, friends and the fantastic medical team at the hospital, the thing that has helped us is books.

I love reading and already had lots of books I was going to read with James. Things like the Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo – he already had a mini library on the shelves. I had visions of story time in bed, sticky fingers on pages and in the end getting bored stiff reading the same thing over and over and over…

So I guess the question is – how would a very premature birth affect all those plans I had?   The answer. They don’t. Not even a little bit. I had my books, I had my baby, he needed all kinds of medical support (and will for a long time) but that wasn’t going to stop me from doing one of the ‘normal’ things that we could still do together.  I was determined to read to him.

Bedtime stories at anytime

I’m sure you can imagine that I was faced with hundreds of questions after James was born so early and so small. Hundreds of questions plus thousands of worries and nothing could prepare me for what to do as a mother for my baby.

I was told by the staff at Bliss that talking was important. My baby would hear my voice and it would help in all sorts of ways. I didn’t take it all in at the time but recently I know that it helps with brain development, bonding between us and it helps to keep a baby calm and happy. At the time I was just happy to have something positive that I could do.

Faced with my beautiful baby, in an incubator there wasn’t much to talk about. After I’d talked about the room, the weather and what I’d managed to eat I was a bit stuck, except I had some of the books I’d already got. So I decided it was story time.

The first book I read was Peter Rabbit. To be honest I felt a bit silly at first. Other families were in the room, the nurses all had important jobs to do and here I was sitting with my baby and reading Peter Rabbit.  After about three pages though I realised that wasn’t the case at all. This was the most normal thing in the world – I enjoyed it and I hoped that James did too. After Peter Rabbit I read The Gruffalo and then The lion that likes to love. I described the pictures to him, I asked what he wanted to hear next (and then decided for him), and slowly it changed from ‘I’ to us and we. It was story time for both of us. It isn’t every child who gets sound effects to The Gruffalo provided by monitors beeping and odd flashing lights but I decided they just made the stories more exciting.

There is a fantastic initiative going on with Bliss, the James Cook University Hospital neonatal wards and the Middlesbrough Reading Campaign.  Not long after we were admitted I was given a copy of Guess How Much I Love You and information about how sharing stories and talking to your baby gives them the best start in life. The book and information itself was great but even better to have the reassurance that I was doing the right thing.  We really enjoy sharing Guess How Much I Love You!

Family reading

One of the things about having a baby born very early is that they need a lot of support, rest, medical help and there isn’t much to do. I wanted to be with him as much as possible. I was only able to spend the first eight nights at the hospital.  I had to be discharged as there were a few families from out of area who took priority in the flats. One of the things which helped with leaving him was to have a routine. Before I left, we had a story together. I then said goodbye and felt better about leaving him for a little while. The books and stories were an important part of my time in James Cook – they were also a godsend for our family.

The thing I discovered very quickly was that family and friends wanted to help – in any way they would. They were happy to visit, go to the shops for me, bring things from home that I needed. What they also wanted to do though was something for James. But what could they do? If he had been born at full-term there would have been burping, and holding and playing with and changing and all the other ways to be involved with a new-born. With James they couldn’t do that. What they could do though was read the stories to him. It was a chance for them to bond with James too and to be able to do something with and for him. We started falling into routines with Dad reading first while Mum and I caught up and then the other way around.   My young nieces were too young to come onto the ward to meet their baby cousin but my friends children sent me video messages of themselves reading to James. 

After a couple of weeks on the unit it seemed like a revolving door of stories for James – family and a couple of friends who’d visit became regular readers for him. My only worry is that as he gets older he’s going to keep expecting that every visitor is there to tell him a story. Still there are worse things.

Incubating a song

The first time I sang to James I did it very quietly. I waited until there were no other parents in the unit and the nurse was on the far side of the room. I stood very close to the incubator, put my hand in to touch James and started to sing softly. I don’t even remember what it was – some nursery rhyme or other. As silly as it sounds I’d been planning this for a couple of days. I know. Who really plans for two days to sing to their own baby. It’s just something you do isn’t it. Something to make them happy or calm them down. With James, because he was premature, I found myself second-guessing everything I’d have done if he’d been at home with me after a normal birth. I had to keep reminding myself that apart from the medical needs, which the team were looking after, he was still my baby and everything I’d planned for him could still happen. So I sang. I don’t know if it is wishful thinking but I’m sure, even with my voice, that it made him happy the first time.

I’ve been told since then that there is research on melodic singing and how it has a calming effect on babies. I wouldn’t claim that my rendition of Hush little baby or You are my sunshine was melodic but it was me, singing to my baby.

After that I got more confident. I sang a few times each day and even started when one of the other Mums was in the unit. I could tell that she’d noticed what I was doing and after I’d finished she came over and said; “I’ve been wondering about singing to Kaytlin but didn’t know if I should.” I knew exactly what she meant – I’m sure that sounds silly to anyone who hasn’t been through it but what we’re ‘meant’ to do is such a big worry that it clouds out a lot of things. From then on though we would both sing – not together or very loudly but we would sing.

Keeping calm

I was well into my routine of reading and singing (occasionally and quietly) by the time James was five weeks old. The family read to him too, I’d shared his books with the other families and was starting to hunt for new children’s books that I didn’t already know by heart. I was sure that reading was helping him as well as me. I got proof of it on a wet Tuesday morning. I’d been watching James being tube fed where I always did, in the chair next to his incubator. He was a little restless which you can understand with everything that was going on and he started to get unsettled (as my Mum calls it) not really crying but clearly not happy, so I did what anyone would do and I started to sing to him. He reacted straight away. Not by crying more – as you might do if you heard my voice – but he calmed down. He relaxed, his moving calmed down and shortly after we went back to the feed.

It was one of many moments that I can only call magical. I’d been reading and singing to him for weeks. It was part of our routine, it was good for the family who visited and I was sure it was helping us bond. But, there was always a slight doubt in my mind. Did he really hear? Could he tell the difference between one noise and another?   Did he know who I was and that it was my voice? That was the first time I knew 100%, no doubt that he knew my voice. Among all the other sounds and people involved in his very young life, he knew me.

Home at last

HelenIt’s been a little while since I wrote the last entry. A lot has happened since then. The biggest news is that James is home! He is up to 8lbs and over the next year he’s going to be weaned….off of oxygen. All the words have different meanings it seems! 

Sometimes I still can’t believe it that I’m home with my baby and that I can pick him up and hold him whenever I want. Being able to touch him and start to play with him rather than having to follow the medical routines is still a bit of a dream sometimes. I find myself remembering when he was so tiny that I could only touch him through the port-holes in the incubator and as soppy as it sounds my voice was the only way I could cuddle him. Now I get to do that properly.

So the books – we have moved on from Peter RabbitRoom on the Broom is the current favourite. I have a rocking chair in his room so I can swing back and forward as the Broom takes off and lands (adding the sound effects of course). The library has continued to grow but his Dad is still more likely to read him the sports page than one of his stories. But who cares? He’s still hearing voices and words and its preparing him to be a Boro fan.

I thought a bit about what message I could add to this because anyone else with a very tiny baby, or even a full-term baby, is worried about what they can and should do. So I’ve ended up with a few simple things.

  1. Read and sing songs to your baby. It is something you can plan, you can do and something you know it is doing your baby good – it doesn’t matter what you read or how badly you sing.
  2. Don’t be embarrassed. Or rather get over it! Who cares? All the evidence backs up that it’s what you should be doing and nothing is more important than your baby and what they need.

So where from here? Well all things considered we’ve been very lucky. I’d planned to read to my baby from the start. I was encouraged by the amazing team at Bliss and with the book pack I got on the ward from the National Literacy Trust Hub in Middlesbrough. Reading to James helped me to feel like I was really being his mum. Since then we’ve been to baby massage, I’ve kept in touch with some of the other mums and I’m looking for a baby music group so its all looking good for us both.

James was born tiny and ill. The hospital could take of his medical needs but no one else could be his mum and being the best mum I could be meant reading to him; and it always will. So – have a baby, get a book. Happy reading.


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