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Last Updated: Friday, 14 November, 2003, 11:27 GMT
Bonding with baby
Sophie and Edward have been reunited with their daughter
Hundreds of premature babies are born each day - and many will have some period of separation from their mother while doctors and nurses care for them both.

Sophie Wessex has now been reunited with her daughter after almost a week apart.

BBC News Online looks at the challenges facing both parents and children in this situation.

As a rule of thumb, the earlier a baby is born, the longer he or she will have to spend in a special care baby unit.

Usually, it might be expected that a premature newborn would spend a period in hospital equivalent to the remaining weeks of pregnancy that they missed, although this does not apply to all babies.

This creates special problems for mother and child, who are frequently denied the opportunity to spend much time together in the days immediately after birth.

However, experts say that these can all be overcome given time.

Ruth Powys, from premature baby charity Bliss, said that although parents might feel as if separation will harm their future relationship with the child, research has shown that it is perfectly possible to reestablish a normal bond with a child who has spent time in special care.

She said: "All these problems can be overcome - you can pick up where you left off once the baby is with you."

Too ill to travel

If the mother has had a caesarean section - major abdominal surgery - she may not feel well enough to go to see the child for days afterwards.

The situation is further complicated if the newborn is transferred to another hospital, either to better intensive care facilities, or because a cot is not available at the same hospital as her mother.

Some parents are separated from their new baby by hundreds of miles when there is a cot shortage in all their regional hospitals.

Ruth Powys said: "It's quite a problem - and many mothers and fathers of premature children have to go through it."

For the mother, it can feel a bit like they haven't even given birth to a child
Ruth Powys
While a very premature baby may spend months in hospital, there is no way that, in most cases, the mother can be kept in as well.

After most caesareans, the mother would be expected to be discharged within four or five days, and, if they live locally, visit the special care unit from home each day.

If the unit is some distance from home, then some hospitals do have accommodation - or even locally-rented flats - which allow one parent to be closer to the child.

Missing out

Ruth Powys believes that both baby and mother can miss out on the normal experience of bonding.

She said: "For the mother, it can feel a bit like they haven't even given birth to a child.

"And it can be a big knock to the confidence to have doctors and nurses looking after your child rather than you.

"It's a very stressful time which, unfortunately, very many people have to go through."

Many units encourage "skin to skin" contact between mother and child, which studies are now suggesting is beneficial to both.

It can be a big knock to the confidence to have doctors and nurses looking after your child rather than you
Ruth Powys
Even if the child is being fed through a tube into its stomach, parents are often encouraged to carry out this procedure themselves.

"There is a growing body of research that skin to skin contact helps the baby maintain its heartrate better.

"One technique that is become more widely used in the UK is 'kangaroo care' - where the baby is literally strapped to the front of the mother and carried around all the time."

The Wessex baby was well enough to be moved from St George's Hospital in south London to her mother's bedside at Frimley Park, 35 miles away.

Unfortunately, in the most seriously-ill premature babies, it may be impossible to even take the child out of its incubator for more than a few moments at a time.

Holes in the side of the incubator allow staff and parents to reach in, but the amount of medical equipment attached to the baby can prove extremely upsetting for parents.

Seeing the baby undergoing what appear to be highly distressing medical procedures - such as heel-prick blood tests and the insertion of feeding tubes and intravenous needles - can also be tough for parents.


Ironically, Ruth Powys said the physical distance between mother and child may actually benefit the bond with the father.

"Often the dad ends up being the prime carer for a period, and many men say they feel this helped them create a better bond with the baby than they would otherwise have had."

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