Four Nights in Hospital with (and without) Matilda

When Matilda was born she was running a temperature and had an elevated heart rate. She was taken to the neonatal unit to be administered with antibiotics. I was taken to a private room on one of the wards, given toast and yoghurt, and promptly fell asleep. Steve headed home to do the same. And so began the first of four rollercoaster nights in the hospital.

Day One

I woke up at 6:30 the morning after the birth feeling very faint. I ate a banana followed by the most welcome breakfast of my life and then I cried, overwhelmed by a combination of immense happiness, picturing Matilda's beautiful face, and sadness and confusion because I didn't know where she was or what she was eating or what exactly was supposed to be wrong with her or what would happen next. I didn't even know whether I was allowed to go and see her (I think I had been told parents could visit any time, twenty-four hours a day - it just hadn't sunk in) and, if I was allowed, I didn't know how to negotiate my catheter and maternity pad and underwear.

So I lay in my hospital bed, wrote my birth story in a draft email and waited for somebody to come and tell me what to do.

I felt stunned.

It was a couple of hours before I was able to go to her, catheter now removed, unwashed, puffy eyed, still in my nightdress. Nothing mattered except getting to see my daughter.

The neonatal unit was both heartbreaking and amazing. Matilda was sharing a room with a lot of very premature, very tiny babies, some with lungs so underdeveloped they would squeak instead of cry.

Matilda, the full term baby in the corner, looked enormous and incredibly healthy beside them - she seemed so out of place.

She also seemed amazing. The simplest things - making eye contact; falling asleep in my arms; wearing a hat - blew me away.

It was a confused sort of a day. Steve's parents visited but I was too tired to follow the conversation (and some of it wasn't about Matilda - what was with that?!). A student midwife who had been with me in the labour ward popped by to see how we were doing. I was so spaced that I couldn't remember when any of the mealtimes were on my ward - I missed them all because I was sitting downstairs with Matilda.

Although people kept giving me information, I was spaced and stressed and I didn't feel like I knew what was happening to my baby. She was on antibiotics but I was under the impression this was some sort of precautionary measure. She was being drip fed but this would be gradually reduced as she started to pee. She would eventually come on the ward with me but nobody could give me any indication of how long that would be - hours? days? weeks?

I cried a lot. I spent most of the evening sobbing at Steve. Why was my baby downstairs without me? Why was I stuck on a ward, syringing my own milk and waiting for somebody to phone me and tell me my baby was hungry enough to need it? Why was somebody else dressing her and changing her nappies and comforting her when she woke up startled? She was one day old and it felt utterly, utterly wrong that she was anywhere other than in my arms, in her own home, getting fed when she was hungry and bonding with her parents. I was so tired and so devastated. I missed my baby terribly. I wanted us all to go home.

The world's most welcome breakfast.

Day Two

It had been an exhausting night. I had been down in the neonatal unit hand feeding Matilda before bedtime. When I had come back upstairs, I had sat up until one expressing the tiniest bit of milk and sobbing because I could hear somebody else's baby crying across the corridor. I was woken up at 4:45 to express more milk and I spent an hour producing so little food for my child that I felt utterly hopeless - how would I ever get her home if I couldn't even feed her?

Eventually, I got in the shower but, just as I was starting to feel a little more like myself, there was a knock at the door - Matilda had woken up hungry so I was needed in the neonatal unit. I hobbled down there as fast as I could, abandoning all hope of breakfast.

Matilda had been sick a few times overnight "clearing the mucus". What mucus? Nobody had mentioned any mucus. I was assured that it was perfectly normal.

Our first attempts at actual breastfeeding did not go well. Matilda would latch on but immediately fall asleep. I was worried I wasn't producing enough milk for her. She was put on a four hourly feeding schedule; having always been told newborns feed more or less hourly and should always be fed "on demand" this felt totally alien to me but at least it meant I could be on the ward for mealtimes and painkillers.

I got back to the ward just in time to scrounge breakfast. There was a text waiting for me from a friend who had been through something similar with her own baby; I burst into tears when I read it, so touched that - at six in the morning - somebody actually cared.

I put Matilda's birthday into Steve's and my Google calendar and noticed the induction which had been booked for that Sunday - I was surprised to find that that helped; it was a reminder that, no matter how upsetting these few days in the hospital were, we could have still been waiting to meet her.

During the morning, I was shown how to use an electric breast pump and that seemed incredible. I felt like a cow being milked - it was completely lacking in glamour - but I managed to produce 5ml of milk and that felt to me like a gallon.

In the afternoon, I managed a twenty minute nap and that felt incredible, too.

But the breastfeeding continued to go badly. Every time Matilda got near me, she would fall asleep. Every. Single. Time. Her drip feed was being reduced but I was warned that, if she didn't start getting enough food elsewhere, it would be increased again and she would have to stay in the neonatal unit for longer. Formula milk was raised as an option - I wasn't averse; I was breastfeeding because that's what you're supposed to do not because I felt any particular desire to do so; bottle feeding was left as a possibility.

Steve was with me for most of the day and one positive of the day was watching him with Matilda. He had so much love all over his face and every time he handled her I could see his confidence increase - that was amazing to witness.

Day Three

I got up at four to express milk but I produced so little that I wanted to give up there and then. There were tears. I was too tired and too stressed for this; I knew I wouldn't be entrusted with my own baby until I was able to feed her and, clearly, that wasn't about to happen naturally.

At six, I showered and headed downstairs for Matilda's first feed. I noticed instantly that there were no drips attached to her! This was huge! If she wasn't on a drip, she could theoretically join me on the ward!

She was clearly very hungry but, as usual, the moment she came into contact with me, she fell asleep. I gave her the tiny bit of expressed milk and then the midwives sent me back upstairs for my own breakfast. Ten minutes later, having managed three jelly babies and a text to Steve, they called me back down to try breastfeeding. I was utterly exhausted.

The hospital's breastfeeding specialist was there so she checked my technique which she said was fine. Physically, she said there was no reason I couldn't breastfeed. She also checked that Matilda was opening her mouth wide enough, which she was. We tried nipple shields, which helped a little, but Matilda wasn't used to having to work for her food - she was used to drip feeding and having milk syringed straight into her mouth.

Still, the breastfeeding specialist was happy enough with everything that she told the ward sister Matilda should be upstairs with me. The sister confirmed that Matilda's antibiotics would be stopped that day and she could come and join me. I was flooded with joy.

The midwives sent me back upstairs for lunch and a nap. Steve arrived so I shared the good news with him. The ward midwife popped round so I shared the good news with her - she said this was good timing as, otherwise, we would have had to have had The Talk about me being physically healthy and having to go home. A friend who works in the hospital came to visit and I beamed at her.

Then, at two o'clock, I was called back down to feed Matilda. A paediatrician was there doing her discharge check. She was physically fine but, when I tried to breastfeed her, she flat out would not wake up. Of course she wouldn't wake up - it was so hot in the neonatal unit my hands felt clammy; I wouldn't have been able to wake up, either. The paediatrician was concerned, though - she couldn't be discharged from the neonatal unit unless he knew she was going to get enough to eat.

I cried. I cried a lot. I told them it was unfair to punish Matilda because she was asleep on her second attempt to prove herself. I told them it was too hot for her in there. I told them I was too tired and hungry from trudging back and forth to breastfeed her properly. I told them, if I was discharged from the hospital without her, I couldn't manage the round trip for every feed and we would never establish a good routine. I told them she needed to be with her family, in a relaxed place, developing in peace.

The paediatrician relented. She was allowed to join me on the ward on the condition that she was bottle fed enough formula milk to keep her going. Fine. Whatever. Anything to have my baby with me.

I bottle fed her there and then and was amazed to see how easy it was. She latched on, she drank (she guzzled).

Steve, Matilda and I were walked up to my ward.

We had our daughter!

I felt a moment of panic - what if we couldn't do this?! What would we do when she woke up? What did all those strange noises she made mean? What if she wouldn't eat? I told Steve I was done with breastfeeding - I was too tired and I wasn't prepared to risk having her taken away from me again. He suggested I leave that decision until we were home.

Steve was exhausted so he went home early that evening. Within minutes of him leaving, Matilda had thrown up most of her earlier bottle. At her next feed, she didn't manage the required amount. I cried and pleaded with her - "You have to help me here, Matilda. They can't take you away from me again. They can't. You have to help me." I was terrified. I wanted so badly to go home where nobody was assessing my abilities, where I didn't feel judged, where I could turn to my community midwife or my health visitor if I needed support, where we could bond as a family in peace. The hospital staff were all amazing but there were so many of them I couldn't keep track of who was who - I wanted to be turning to much more familiar faces.

I'm wearing my own clothes
The neonatal unit provided Matilda with clothes and knitted blankets until we were organised enough to bring in our own. If anyone's feeling crafty or generous, your local neonatal unit almost certainly accepts donations.

Day Four

I had spent most of the night listening to Matilda, watching her looking around the hospital room, holding her when she was restless. She had fallen asleep at both breastfeeding attempts but guzzled down two bottles.

I told the midwife I wanted to exclusively bottle feed and the midwife told me that, in that case, she didn't see any reason for us to stay in hospital - she expected we would be discharged that day. I was thrilled.

Matilda and I spent a couple of hours doing skin to skin, waiting for the paediatrician to do his ward rounds and give her her discharge check. He was very happy with her health and told me how much formula milk she would need to be averaging each day for the next couple of weeks. As far as he was concerned, we could leave!

I started pootling around, packing up my things. Steve arrived, stressed because we were getting a lift home from his parents and he had thought we would be able to give them more notice. The last few days had been awful for me but they had been awful for him, too, in slightly different ways - he was the one going home to dejected cats (he did arrange for a friend to go round and play with them, though), tidying up the house and trying to keep it together enough to support me. As it sank in that we were about to take our daughter home, I could see the anxiety lifting from him.

Finally, the discharge was completed and I was given a pile of paperwork and several boxes of drugs. The midwife said we could stay in my room until Steve's parents arrived but I had already gathered that the hospital was screaming for beds that day - apparently Friday night had been the night to go into labour and there were women queued up downstairs, waiting for their scheduled inductions. My own induction had been booked for the following day and I couldn't bear the thought that I might have been kept waiting because a discharged family was sitting around in a bedroom.

We spent about half an hour sitting in the ward lounge, waiting for Steve's dad to arrive, cuddling Matilda and making shocked, excited faces over the top of her head. It was raining outside.

As we left the hospital, the skies cleared and the sun came out. The cherry blossoms were all in bloom.

Sitting in our own home, later, cotton wool snowflakes fell and covered the world outside.

We were surrounded by grandparents - Steve's side; my side - for several hours.

And then we were home on our own: Steve, Matilda, the cats and me.

Rooftops family home at last

So What Happened Next?

Well, the breastfeeding never did work. I did keep trying but even in a cooler, calmer environment, Matilda would fall asleep the minute she latched on. There have been more tears about this - was I letting her down? did Steve think I was letting her down? were people going to judge me? - but the bottle feeding is so, so much simpler I've accepted it and moved on.

On a side note, although the pain in my hips has completely disappeared (HURRAH!!!!!), I'm still very weak around that area and was struggling to hold Matilda during breastfeeding attempts - physically, I think I'm better off using bottles.

Thus far, Matilda is a very easygoing baby. She sleeps well, wakes once overnight and only really cries when she needs her nappy changed. I'm not sure whether this is down to her personality, to something Steve and I are doing, or whether it's something she learned in the neonatal unit - I just hope it continues!

The few days in hospital felt to me like weeks - I was exhausted and anxious and missed my baby terribly - but I can also see good sides. We spent so long watching other people handling Matilda that we learned a lot and, I think, are more confident with her as a result. We know she's not going to break if we shove her waggling arms into a cardigan.

And I really can't put into words how much I value the care we were given. I wouldn't wish the same experience on anyone else but we are so, so lucky to live in a country where, when a baby is ill, the hospital takes care of them. We didn't need to worry about what it was costing us or whether our insurance was covering us. The NHS stepped up and gave our daughter everything medical she needed.

The staff at Aberdeen Maternity Hospital were hugely supportive, incredibly patient, utterly professional and brimming with empathy; they were sympathetic when I cried, they listened when I spoke or argued as Matilda's mother, and they went out of their way to look after me when I was too worked up to do that myself. They deserve my every thanks.

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