Conditions that threaten women’s lives in childbirth & pregnancy

Contact with the baby

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.
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.
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.
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.
Mother-baby bonding
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.
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.
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.”
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.

Last reviewed April 2016.


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