New mothers are usually very keen to see and hold their newborn babies as soon as possible. After life-threatening emergencies around birth, this is often very difficult to achieve. The mother is often still critically ill (possibly in intensive care) and the baby can also sometimes need to be in neonatal intensive care (NICU) (see ‘Baby in neonatal unit (NICU)’). Here we look at what people told us about their early contact with their newborn and how they felt about bonding with their baby.
Where does the baby go?
Because of the mother’s severe illness, there was often a delay of hours or even days before she was able to see and hold her baby. Babies are not normally allowed into intensive care units (ITUs), and in any case often the mothers are unconscious or not well enough to see their baby.
However several women described efforts that staff made to bring their baby to them, or help them to go and see their baby.
Karen is married with two sons, one now a teenager. White British.
Your motherly instincts are crying out for you to do what other, you know, wants to breast feed and stuff like that and I couldn’t. I didn’t hold him. I went up to see him about two days. When I was in Intensive Care one of the nurses somehow, I don’t know how the hell she did it, but she got me in a wheelchair with all the bags and drips and God knows what and wheeled me up to special care to see [son] and that was the first time I’d seen him, obviously after the C section. And I couldn’t hold him. It was really hard.
And when I went up there, [husband] was, my husband, he was feeding him. He was really surprised to see me. And it was lovely to see him feeding, feeding him. So the first time I actually got to hold [son] was, properly was when I was transferred back to the labour, actually the delivery ward. I had to go back to the delivery ward before going back to the labour ward. That was on the Saturday. So, yes. That was hard, sort of three days of not being able to me a Mum. Yes, so.
Sarah now knows that staff brought her baby to see her while she was in ITU, but she doesn’t remember, “which is really, really tough. That’s the worst bit, is not remembering those things”. Often this contact was only for a short time and mothers had to wait until they were less ill to hold their baby. Sometimes mothers in intensive care insisted that they should see their baby, even when they were not considered well enough to do so.
Hannah, a 34 year old editor, is married with two children. White British.
So was he allowed to come and be with you in intensive care at all?
No, no, he had to wait quite a long time actually. I think it was… it was a good few hours, yes. I don’t know why. He could probably tell you, but I don’t really know why. And then I didn’t see the baby until, I think it was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I’d given birth at 2 in the morning. Because we had to fight to be allowed to, for her to come up intensive care, all sorts of things, that you think, I shouldn’t really have to cope with this while I’m in intensive care. For goodness sake. But I suppose it was a measure of how well I was by then that, you know, that you were able to have a conversation about it. Because they were worried that the baby would get ill from intensive care and then the intensive care people were saying, “Well actually it’s much cleaner up here, than it is on your ward. If anything you’re bringing, you know, stuff with you.” So there was this ridiculous fight between them.
And then she, I mean you’re allowed to push, the family aren’t allowed to push the baby around the hospital, only the breast feeding counsellor or a midwife is allowed to, and they weren’t available for hours, and that’s why I couldn’t see the baby. There were all sorts of weird rules and regulations about why, who can push a baby in a trolley round the hospital. It’s all very strange. So that was why we had to wait so long, because the breast feeding counsellor wasn’t there.
Sarah, who was in intensive care for several days after her third daughter was born, said she wished she could rewind time and go back and remember the early moments she missed. “I don’t think that is taken into consideration either. That I’ve lost experiences that I can’t get back.” She is very grateful for the few photos that she has of her daughter’s first hours after birth.
Alison is an accountant, married with one son. White British.
When did you finally get to see your son?
When he was 27 hours old, 3 o’clock in the afternoon. A long, long time. They decided that he couldn’t be brought into Intensive Care because the infection risk was just too great for him. And I guess, that’s hard to, it’s hard to sort of hear that, because that’s what I really wanted to see him. But again I didn’t want to expose him to any unnecessary risk. So I had to just wait until I was stable enough to be transferred to the labour suite and we had to wait for a porter to come and get me, and [laughs] It was the longest… we had waited about three hours to be, from the point at which they said I could go to the point at which I actually went. And that’s the longest three hours ever. It was horrible. It was really, really horrible waiting such a long time.
And… that… all that was going through my head the whole time was I haven’t even had a cuddle with him yet. I’ve not even, I’ve not even touched him yet. And that was, I’d seen pictures, because Mum and Dad, and husband had taken pictures and shown them to me, so I’d seen him. But, in a way he’s kind of that… it was lovely to see the pictures and actually see. They’d taken loads of pictures of his first feed. And that kind of thing, but in a way that’s hard as well, because you think I should have been there for that. And I still feel that. I still feel I should have been there for those things. And that’s, you’re never going to get that, never get that back.
And where had he been at that time. Had he been in the maternity ward?
Yes, he was above the maternity ward, and all the midwives loved him [laughs]. They looked after him so well and you know, they’d all, yes, they’d all really taken to him which was nice that, you know, that he’d been so well looked after. So yes, that was good, to know that he’d been looked after so well.
And your husband had been able to spend some time with him as well?
Yes, yes, so he’d been up there and yes, and obviously sat with me for a bit, and then there comes a point where there is only so many beeping machines that you can sit and listen to and if, if I’m not, he knew they weren’t going to bring me, bring me round any time soon. So it makes sense that he’s with, with our son, and sort of spending some time with him. And he’s having cuddles with somebody, rather than nobody.
And when you finally got to see him, were you able to hold him at that point?
Sometimes the babies themselves were in intensive care, so it was hard for their mothers to get to see them. Michael described how his wife was on one floor (in the High Dependency Unit) and his baby on another, so he was a messenger taking digital photos for her to see her son. Kate’s son was in intensive care in a different hospital. Nurses wrote a “little diary from my son to me, and of course, that got me” and her partner brought photographs. When they were reunited, she didn’t recognise her son, which she found upsetting. Belinda had a caesarean and was not mobile. She did not have family living nearby and there were no staff to wheel her to see her baby in NICU, so she didn’t see much of her for the two weeks she was there.
Alex is a solicitor, married with two children. White British.
When she was born, they wrapped her up and they brought over to me quickly just to sort of touch her, and they said, “Can you… You can hear that she’s grunting a bit, which means that struggling to breath a bit. So we need to take her down. So they took her down. [Husband] stayed with me for a bit while they sewed me up. And then I went back into the labour ward and he, the midwife then took him down to special care with [second daughter].
And she was doing fine initially, and at 34 weeks they didn’t think that she would necessarily have that much trouble breathing. I’d had the steroid injections the first time I came in, and then I think at 32 weeks I’d had all the steroids to try and mature her lungs and on the, I’d been having growth scans every two weeks.
They thought she was quite a healthy weight so… I wasn’t, which again sounds a bit naïve that worried about how she was going to be. I thought… and I think because they’d also taken us down to show us special care very early on and when we went on there had been a baby that had been born. She was the exact same gestational age, but she’d already been born at 26 weeks and so her parents very kindly gave us permission to have a look at her. She happened to have the same name as our elder daughter, which sort of freaked us out a bit, but so we’d seen what a 26 weeker looked like. And then, they showed us a 32 and there was such a massive difference. And they kept re-iterating every, you know, every day makes a difference at this age. So, I sort of thought we were going to be fine really. We were fine ultimately, but she had a few more problems breathing than they had envisaged her. But it, it turned out to be the exact right time, because of the antibodies that I have had also started attacking her red blood cells. So she needed to come out then, regardless really of, of the placenta issue so…
So she was breathing on her own, and we thought everything was fine, so we sent the email out saying, “Oh….” And she was five two, which was a really good weight for 34 weeks and then they came to, this is where it gets blurry for me, because I had quite a lot of… they gave me Oramorph as a painkiller and it made me go… because they couldn’t give the normal painkillers that they give a suppository because of the risk of haemorrhage still. And then they forgot that they hadn’t given me any, and I said, “It’s actually really starting to hurt now.” So they gave, and the Oramorph just made me go completely dolally. I felt like I had tourettes. I was about to start shouting obscenities and I felt like I’d drunk about five bottles of wine, and I was going to…. So I asked them to stop that, but it, those first two days were a bit of blur, but the Friday the paediatrician said that she was starting to become unwell and that she was going to need some help breathing and that she would need a blood transfusion. And so they put her in CPAP and they were going to give the blood transfusion and then she became even more unwell.
And I was obviously getting most of this third hand from [husband], because he was down, going back and forth from special care, and in the end he asked the paediatrician to come and explain it to me on the labour ward. And they said that they’d done an x-ray and her lungs are quite under developed and they felt she need to have some surfactant and that they would have ventilate her to do that, and that one of the risks of ventilation is that it’s so much easier for the babies being ventilated because they’re not working so hard, that they don’t then want to come off.
So they ventilated her on
How did new mothers feel that their medical emergency and separation from their newborn affected their bonding with their baby? Several felt very sad about not being able to instantly hold and start bonding with their babies.
Alison is an accountant, married with one son. White British.
Yes, it was. Yes. Yes, very emotional [laughs]. But yes, that was… but it was, that was hard as well, because I was still so, I was incredibly bloated. I was, I looked like, I don’t know what I looked… [laughs]. Somebody else who’s been through it described it as looking like a marshmallow man, and I think that… My, my fingers were so swollen, so blown up with all, just all the fluids I think, and the trauma and everything else. I couldn’t even bend my fingers. So trying to hold a baby with massive arms and fingers and everything else and being really, really sore and weak, was actually really hard and so I wasn’t able. I wasn’t, didn’t feel I was able to hold him for very long, and then I felt guilty that I couldn’t hold him for very long. And, that was quite, that was quite hard, because you want to hold them, and I think you see, before you have a baby, you see all these sort of idealistic, you have this idealistic picture in your head, and what it’s like when you’ve got a baby, that you’ll spend all the time cuddling them, and I didn’t feel like I could do that, because just holding him to start with, was just exhausting. So that was really, that was really difficult sort of emotional battle really. You want to be doing something, but you know, physically you’re not able to do it so… that was quite hard.
Sometimes they felt so unwell, and shocked by their experiences, that their newborns were an “afterthought”. Some felt so exhausted or medicated that it was as if someone else had had the baby.
Lisa, a 35 year old instrument maker, with one child. She lived with her partner. White British.
Lisa' And they brought [daughter] to me, that’s one thing, that I’ve always, always, always really, really regretted. This is something I’d like to know how other women feel about, because I didn’t wake up and instantly think of her, which makes me feel diabolical to this day. I remember, I even forgot, I’d had a baby. I just woke up thinking what the hell has happened to me? I’ve been cooked in an oven. And I went, “Oh hang on, I’ve had a baby. Where is she?” She was like an afterthought, which makes me feel terrible. And I remember [partner] vividly bringing this little plastic crib over and I just sat up and looked over and just felt nothing. Just, not ambivalence. I didn’t sort of think, because I know some people feel really negative towards their baby when they’ve been through something like that. And I didn’t feel anything like that, thank goodness. I’ve always, always wanted children, so it was everything to me to have a baby, so I would never ever feel negatively towards her, quite the opposite, but I just remember thinking, that’s not mine, what’s that? Is that mine? [Laughs].
Because the thing is, there was a long delay between having her, and her being on my chest, and me looking at her, all cuddled up, and I remembered then the minute I’d had her, how precious this thing is, and nobody understands parenting until you have a child. Because I’ve always fluctuated through my life, thinking I do want kids, I don’t want kids. I like my life, I want kids, I don’t know. And then you have a child, and suddenly it’s like wow, this is better than anything on earth. This is, this tops everything. People can’t warn you for that.
And I just, then, going from that perfection of looking at this little tiny face, and thinking ooooh I want to eat her, and just thinking wow this is incredible, to that time frame of going through all that and then seeing this baby after all that, there was a real cut off in the bonding process I think. It’s funny I did bond when she was born, bonded massively and I did not want them to take her off me at all. Not even to clean her up. Oh I always said I wanted her cleaned up didn’t I?
Lisa' It’s funny. I said, “Don’t bring her to me until she’s clean.” Because I can’t stand all that stuff. I was like ehhhh, no. And they didn’t care. Lumped her straight on me. And I just thought, ehh, ehh, it’s my baby look at this. Oh she’s incredible. And I remember thinking wow you’re massive. This isn’t mine. And you see the Dad and you realise, he’s sat there, you’re your Dad’s child. And there’s just huge chasm of like three days that passed. I think it was three days when I woke up in ITU, and I thought that’s not mine. And I just sat up in bed and they said to me, “Do you want to hold her?” I thought well, I want to hold my baby, but that’s not my baby, where’s my baby? And I remember looking at her, thinking she looks completely different and of course in three days, a new born baby, changes immeasurably.
I suddenly went off the idea for some reason and when they said, “Do you want to hold her?” And I thought, that’s not, is that mine? And I just, I was really confused. And I said to [partner], “Is that her?” And he said, “Yes.” And I was like, looking at her really confused. I thought she didn’t look like that when she came out. That’s not her face. And then I felt very separated. And not negative, in any way, it just didn’t feel. It felt as if they’d brought th
Age at interview:
Age at diagnosis:
Kate is a teacher. This was her first pregnancy. She now lives with her partner and son. White British.
I did have some physio on the fourth day when they finally got me to sit up and I felt really sick [small laugh]. But I couldn’t walk anywhere because I was so wired up to the machines, so I could go about a metre and then I couldn’t move any further. Just the lack of dignity was tremendous. You know, people having to wash you everywhere and I could feed myself eventually, which is good. But they kept saying, you know, you’ll look forward to seeing your son. And I thought what son? What do you mean? Didn’t really mean a lot to me.
Where was he?
He was in neonatal.
In the same hospital?
No a different hospital a few miles away. But the nurses there were ever so good. They, they wrote a little diary from my son to me and of course that, that got me, that got me. So he wrote about what he’d been doing that day and… but it was not real to me. And my partner showed me photographs and I actually said, “Have you got the right baby?” I didn’t recognise him.
So… I didn’t have this maternal side to me, because I wasn’t allowed to have that. So I worried, I worried about when I’d see him again. Would he know me? Would he like me? Because I felt like I’d let him down.
So yes, after four days, I finally went back to the hospital where my son was, and we were reunited and I couldn’t really stand up without assistance, which is so frustrating because normally I’m really active and healthy and having to ring every time you want to get up. But I forced myself to do it. I probably shouldn’t have done, but, and then to have the catheter removed, they want you then to pass water and I remember ringing for the nurse and she gave me a jug. Oh God. And I was so embarrassed about it. But it was another step towards recovery.
And then I took my son down for his hearing test which he passed with flying colours. Because I’d been told not to be disappointed if he couldn’t hear properly because the tests are not supposed to be done until they’re forty weeks and of course he was just 36 weeks.
So, we finally go, my partner and I finally named him after four days, because he was called ‘male infant’ for four days, and I thought, well he can’t go through life with a name like that. But I didn’t want to name him, because well I didn’t really know him, you know, I wanted to look at his eyes and decide [laughs].
So we came up with his name and he became a real little person and it’s a big responsibility naming a child. So I thought this was the first thing I’ve actually been able to do for you. I wanted to breast feed him, but well my body was quite useless really. And I was told that because I’d been through so much then it probably wasn’t going to be possible. But I persevered. I sat there with a breast pump but I had other things on my mind and I wasn’t really focusing on it, but, and the nurses kept saying, “Well you know, its day five, its day six.” And I said, “No its not. For me its day one.” And they didn’t seem to grasp that fact.
So yes, I was pretty useless where breast feeding was concerned and it took me a long time to get over that guilt, because I wanted it to be, you know, the thing that I did as a bonding process and for the health of my child. And you see the posters everywhere in the hospital and [laughs] I thought yes, I know, but I can’t, I’m sorry.
It was common for mothers to feel their bonding was affected by their trauma and early separation from their babies. Kerry, whose son was born suddenly due to her placenta praevia and was in intensive care for a long time said, “I bonded with him now [but] I just felt like I was babysitting for somebody else… I was just looking at him and there was nothing. I couldn’t cry”. Belinda said she remembered crying when they brought her baby down to see her – “it wasn’t because of happiness at seeing her, it was, “Thank God it’s out.” So I didn’t have a very strong bond with the baby at all. I still don’t particularly five years on.”
Anna lives with her partner and two sons. White British..
And that was a whole new challenge, because it was, it was relief to be around my children, but being around them and not being Mum, not really being Mum. That was hard, you know. The fact that everyone else was looking after him and that I wasn’t, because for me, it’s important to be Mum, it’s important to be that special person because Mum’s are special. No matter who they are, they’re special. And I wanted to be special. I was special to [older son], I wouldn’t, I was like there all the time doing everything for him. I was, you know, I wouldn’t say obsessed but I was really, I loved being a Mum and it was so hard not to be able to do that for [younger son]. And that sort of made me go up and down quite a lot. I found it sort of hard to bond, not that I hated, I never hated him, not once. People ask me, I had a lot of people saying, “Do you resent the baby?” No never. I’d do it all over again, if it meant I could have him, no questions asked. But it was the hard fact that I, mentally couldn’t do it. And physically couldn’t do it, and I was going through so much other stuff that… my whole body and brain couldn’t make sense of, how was I going to be there for somebody else when my body couldn’t even make sense of it myself. But as I got better, I did, I made, like made much more effort and things like that, because I wanted to be that Mum so bad. And I have. You know, we are there now, you know, and it did take a long time, and it does take time. And in this sort of situation they don’t, it doesn’t just happen, you know, and that’s something I found really hard, because I just wanted it to be done, over and done with now.
Age at interview:
Age at diagnosis:
Jo is a teacher, married with two children. White British.
I think I felt, and I still do to a degree actually if I’m really honest, feel slightly detached. I mean I love him dearly, but I think it was because I had, you know, this, it was so sudden. It was so quick, his birth, that I actually think, well how do I actually know he was mine. I wasn’t there. [Husband] wasn’t there. He doesn’t look like me, you know, there’s all these funny things go through your head and when you sort of… and I just think, oh how do I know? I just have to trust them, that they gave me the right child. And it’s really, really hard and especially where my daughter was born, because I was conscious and I was, you know, I saw her come straight out. And I felt awful. I thought well I didn’t have that with him. And it, you know, it really has. I mean I know in future I’m going to have to work a lot harder at my relationship with him because of it. So yes, its, I think what happened is, its, so there I’m finding it much, much easier to talk about now. I think it still will be there for different, it’ll come up at different stages of my life I think. I think it’s a bit simplistic to say, oh you know, I’m over it now, because I’m not, I am over it to a degree but I don’t think I’m going to forget, you know, that day or the implications of that day, ever, I don’t think.
A few women who had only seen their baby briefly when they were born and then were separated from them didn’t recognise them because they had changed so much in a few days, which affected bonding.
But not everyone felt that their near miss affected their bonding with their new baby. Although Sarah felt guilty that there were big parts of her third daughter’s first weeks that she doesn’t remember, she now feels her bond with her is “fantastic”. Some found bonding went as they expected. Julie felt the bond with her daughter was stronger. Samantha had her baby prematurely and she was in intensive care for several weeks. Even though it was hard and “frustrating”, she always felt bonded to her.
Cate is an IT project manager. She is married with three children. White British
And do you feel that the sort of ups and downs of those weeks affected your relationship with [daughter] and how you bonded or…?
I think, I remember my Mum making a joke when I came out and saying, “You’re either going to come out loving that baby or hating it after being cooped up for four days together in a tiny room.” And, I did bond really well with her. And I bonded really well and really quickly with my first son, and I had the same kind of thing again with [daughter] and I didn’t so much with my middle son which is strange when you think he was the easiest birth and at home and of all the three he was, they were all very, very similar pregnancies, but he was the one who felt different. And he was a much more squirmy child, and he’s the one who was awake at stupid times in the night, and he was a much more demanding baby, and she as a character is very easy going, and we actually kind of call her magic baby, because her natural waking up time is eight o’clock in the morning and the other two are up at sort of 6-6.30 and she’ll just lay in bed till we get her up some days, and only very recently, in fact the last fortnight she’s started getting up about 7 and I think that’s because she’s more attuned to them being around now. She’s about two and a half now. And she’s just been a very happy character and a very easy going baby, and I think actually that probably had more to do with it, but it was nice to have the time with her, and its lovely to have the boys around and they would have been out during some of the day anyway, but I don’t think it certainly didn’t have an adverse effect in any way. So, I don’t think… No I don’t think it probably did. I think even if I’d had her normally she would have been that kind of relaxed person. Yes.