We speak to Zoë Chivers, Head of Services at Bliss, the UK charity for premature and sick babies, to find out about prematurity and the support for parents
What do we know about premature birth?
A baby born before 37 weeks gestation is considered premature. Each year 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK and most premature births are spontaneous, with no clear cause. Most of these babies will need urgent neonatal care after birth.
What does Bliss do?
Bliss champions the right for every baby born premature or sick to receive the best care by empowering families, influencing policy and practice, and enabling life-changing research.
Bliss is the UK’s leading charity for babies born premature or sick.
We offer emotional and practical support and information to families and equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to provide the best possible care to their baby, for however long they live and for however long their stay in neonatal care.
Through our network of dedicated volunteers we provide face-to-face, phone and email support when families need it the most.
What do we know about the causes of premature birth?
The causes of premature birth are not well understood and for the most part doctors do not know how to prevent it. Babies can be born prematurely for many different reasons:
Pregnancies with twins, triplets or more are more likely to end early.
Pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure in the mum) occurs in about 10 to 15% of first-time pregnancies, and is responsible for at least 15% of all premature births.
Stressful events can start labour early. However there is no evidence that the normal stresses of day-to-day living can bring on premature birth.
Is there anything we can do to prevent more premature births?
Looking after yourself during your pregnancy by eating well and keeping active is important, but as little is known about the causes of premature birth, this doesn’t prevent it from happening.
Bliss focuses on improving outcomes for premature babies through training for healthcare professionals.
We also support parents so they can be involved in their babies’ neonatal care (this is called family-centred care, which you can find out about in our video).
Globally, we work as part of the World Prematurity Network to raise awareness and prevent premature births.
Shockingly, prematurity is still the leading cause of death in children under five, but just like here in the UK, other countries are seeing significant improvements in the health and survival of premature babies due to family-centred care.
What would you like parents of premature babies to know and do you have any advice for them?
It can be beneficial to touch your baby – they may find it soothing to feel the gentle pressure of your hands resting on their body, their head, or cupping their feet.
If a baby is born premature and needs treatment on a neonatal unit it can be hard for parents to bond with them.
The following tips can help parents be more involved in their baby’s care, and ensure that they’re not missing out on precious moments together:
Watch your baby so you can learn to spot signs about how they might be feeling.
Talk, sing or read to your baby. If your baby is in an incubator ask if one of the portholes can be opened so that your baby can hear you more easily.
Feed your baby – even if your baby is being tube fed it should be possible for you to be involved with feeding from an early stage.
Ask to do daily care, like cleaning your baby’s mouth and changing their nappy, as these will be opportunities for you to get to know each other. Policies vary from unit to unit but ask early on when you can be involved with activities like this.
Get involved in baby’s first bath as this can be a very special moment. Ask the nurses to plan the first bath with you so that you can do it with their support.
Skin-to-skin-contact, often referred to as kangaroo care, means holding your baby close against your chest. It has lots of benefits for babies and is a special activity which both parents can do.
Ask your doctor or nurse to explain things you don’t understand. There really is no such thing as a silly question, especially when it’s about your baby.
There is lots of information about conditions on the Bliss website and information on the neonatal unit.
What support is out there for parents of premature babies?
Parents can call or email the Bliss helpline, or if they are on a neonatal unit where Bliss Champions are based they can receive face-to-face support too. Bliss information for parents can be found on our website, as well as print publications which are available on some units and free of charge through our online shop.
For peer support and to read about other families’ experiences, parents can also visit the Bliss and Netmums forum.
Bliss has created the Bliss Baby Cards, which celebrate each milestone in a baby’s neonatal journey, such ‘Today I had my first cuddle’ and ‘Today I had my first bath’.
If your friend or relative has had a premature baby, the Bliss Baby Cards can make a unique gift which will really help the family celebrate their baby’s development.
You can get the cards direct from the Bliss website.