There’s nothing as magical so taking your little bundle of joy home from the hospital for the first time. But for thousands of mums and dads, that day doesn’t happen when you might expect. With one in ten babies born premature in the UAE, and 60% of twins and 90% of triplets also born early, the reality of the time after birth for many families is a fraught series of days, weeks or months spent in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) worrying and praying for the day when their little one is well enough to go home.
It’s an incredibly difficult and frightening time - especially for expats living away from their familiar surroundings - and one in which it is easy to feel isolated and alienated from friends, family and other parents who have only known an easy transition from hospital-birth to home-bassinet.
This was the situation for Lala Langtry-White, a British expat who had experienced two normal pregnancies and births, until she became pregnant for the third time with twins.
“I had been in Dubai less than six months with my three-year-old and one-year-old when I was surprised to find out I was pregnant, and then even more surprised to learn that I was expecting monochorionic twins (identical twins that share a placenta),” says Lala.
However, things were not to go as smoothly as they had done in her previous pregnancies.
“At 13 weeks my twins were diagnosed with Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome, a condition unique to multiples that share a placenta where there is an uneven flow of blood across the placenta. It is fatal in up to 90% of cases without treatment: laser ablation surgery, which carries only a 30% chance of both babies surviving.”
Lala had this surgery when she was 17 weeks into her pregnancy and fortunately, against all odds, both babies survived it.
However, the twin’s condition meant that a premature birth was inevitable – they just didn’t know how premature, and Lala says this was a constant source of anxiety.
“I felt enormously isolated. I struggled to find anyone who would understand"
" Having my first and second child had been a wonderfully bonding experience for me as I had friends entering parenthood at the same time and also met lots of new friends.
“But when I was pregnant with the twins I felt enormously isolated. I struggled to find many friends who were having their third, let alone third and fourth, babies, or ones whose very survival came with such poor odds.”
Lala tried to prepare herself by visiting the NICU and talking to the nurses about what she could expect. But nothing prepared her for what happened next:
“When my twin boys Digby and Arto, were delivered at 33 weeks I expected them to be small but otherwise pretty robust, having had steroid shots to boost their lung development.
“But I was completely overwhelmed and emotionally unravelled by having two babies in separate incubators, who were unable to breathe, feed or regulate their body temperature on their own.”
Lala wasn’t able to even see let alone hold her babies straight away since she was recovering from the birth, and she also struggled with her milk supply.
“It was so different to my previous experience of birth and parenthood and my feelings of guilt and sheer physical exhaustion were immense.
“While I was so grateful for the outpouring of love and support from friends and family, I only wanted to speak to someone who had been through this, someone who hadn't birthed their baby and walked out of the hospital doors with a proud bundle of joy in their arms, and not just that but someone who had been through this with multiples.”
When she finally came out of the fog of early parenthood with premature twins, Lala started supporting other families who were going through complicated multiple pregnancies, which led her to meet with Joanne Hanson Halliwell, the founder of Small and Mighty Babies, a UAE-based support group for parents of premature babies and multiples.
“We immediately bonded over our shared passion for using our own experiences to support other families through the intense emotions of NICU and our desire to create a continuous, consistent support network,” says Lala. “Together we share the two different sides of premature delivery: the sudden shock of having a baby unexpectedly early, and the ticking clock of a complicated pregnancy.”
“At Small and Mighty Babies we represent every outcome of prematurity,” she continues, “from those whose babies are growing and thriving, those whose struggles continue long after they come home from NICU and those whose babies were born just too soon, too small or too sick to come home. We have babies in the group born as early as 23 weeks and those who weighed as little as 540grams.
“Small and Mighty is an incredible platform of families who are an invaluable resource of experience for one another, who together celebrate the milestones, support each other through the hard days and most importantly, surround one another with a community of love.
“As often as we can, Joanne and I provide in person as well as online support to families in hospitals, organise regular get-togethers with expert guest speakers such as counsellors for PTSD, post natal depression and birth trauma, physiotherapists, legal specialists and child development professionals.
“We have also introduced our Upon a Star memory box this year for miscarriage, still birth and neonatal loss so that all our families, whatever their story or outcome, know our love and support is there. I have also since qualified as a Doula and Wise Hippo Birthing instructor to better support our families through their pregnancy, delivery and postnatal journeys.”
World Prematurity Day is held on the 17th of November.
See Smallandmightybabies.com for more details.