Belfast mum Laura Moreland on having a premature baby and postnatal depression
Laura Moreland never imagined she'd be leaving baby daughter Amy behind in hospital after the birth. The mum-of-three, who lives in Belfast with husband Tommy, tells Judith Cole about her postnatal depression and the difference which charity TinyLife made
Leaving hospital without her newborn baby was the hardest thing Laura Moreland (36) has ever done. "It still makes me cry," admits the east Belfast social worker and mother-of-three.
"You have this mental image of a textbook birth and walking out of the ward, delighted and happy, with your husband carrying your baby in the car seat."
And why wouldn't she, for Laura was already mum to Jack (now eight) and Daniel (four) when she discovered she was carrying little Amy.
"I'd gone back to work after Daniel but things weren't right. As a social worker specialising in the area of mental health, I at least had the awareness to know what was wrong and my GP diagnosed postnatal depression," she recalls.
"I came out of work and went on medication. I was coping well, taking Jack to school and making sure I was getting social interaction with the mums at the school gate.
"After about one year, Daniel was coming off breastfeeding and the GP wanted to change my medication so asked me to come in for a chat. I knew she'd ask if I was pregnant before she prescribed anything new so I did a test - Amy was on her way."
Her due date was mid-September 2015, but at just 31 weeks Laura's waters broke. She was given steroids to help the baby's lungs but, two weeks later, Amy had to be delivered on July 30.
"It was traumatic. The day we went in for what was a check-up I ended up being rushed by ambulance, under siren and flashing lights, to Antrim Hospital - you have to go wherever there's a neonatal intensive care bed," recalls Laura.
"Amy was 4lb 8oz and grey when she was born. She was on oxygen because her lungs were underdeveloped and she had to be fed through a tube into her stomach initially.
"The other challenge was maintaining her temperature and at one stage the doctors thought she had an infection, so she even had to endure a lumbar puncture.
"You're in this ward of new mums and their babies. It was heartbreaking to watch them and not even have Amy beside me."
Discharged after a few days, Laura had to leave her tiny baby behind.
"I was given a breast pump at the hospital through TinyLife and a stash of hand-knitted bonnets and blankets which people donate. It's such a simple thing but when you're facing such a crisis it meant so much to know that someone cared enough to take the time to help you and your wee tote," says Laura.
"Amy was kept in for two weeks and two days and it was a juggling act during that time. I was up at 4am or 5am to express milk and take it up to the hospital, spend a few hours there before coming home to see the boys.
"In the evening we left them with their grandparents while my husband Tommy and I went back to the hospital. Thankfully Amy's life was never under threat - some parents are living from hour to hour for days wondering if their baby will survive. We were lucky."
With Amy finally discharged, Laura thought life would be back to normal. Little did she realise the nightmare would only get worse.
"Amy was tiny - and still is. She's three now but wears size 12-18 months clothes. People thought she was a doll - until she moved," she says. "Having two children already I thought I was well prepared but nothing prepares you for a premature baby. Of course babies like to feed but Amy was feeding ridiculously frequently because her stomach was so tiny. And she wasn't gaining weight.
"I couldn't go out with her and I missed the interaction with other mums, even just at the school gate.
"Your whole life just seems to be anxiety; I was constantly second guessing myself, so my confidence went."
As a result Laura felt her depression creeping back. But this time it was worse.
Indeed, a report (Northern Ireland Baby Report 2018) published this year by Bliss - the charity which supports babies who are born premature or sick, and TinyLife, which aims to raise funds to support research in response to the high levels of infant mortality and morbidity -states that mothers of premature babies are 40% more likely to suffer from postnatal depression and other mental health conditions.
At this difficult time in her life, Laura didn't know where to turn.
"I wasn't coping and at times I thought I was losing my mind," she says. "Once you're at home again there's no specialist support, yet you've so many questions. I'd had two relatively normal pregnancies so why had my body failed me this time? What had I done that Amy should end up with this start in life?"
One night, in desperation, Laura went rifling through information packs the hospital had given her.
"That's when I found the leaflets on TinyLife. I rang them that afternoon and the next morning I had a support worker in my home. I cannot tell you the difference that made.
"I could talk to someone who understood. TinyLife suggested coming along to some of their groups - everyone's in the same boat, so they don't bring kids with sniffles and they don't say 'isn't she tiny'. People don't mean any harm but after the first few dozen times you get tired of explaining.
"I also went back to my GP who has been fantastic so I was able to address my mental health.
"I know through my own work that one of the biggest indicators for how a child will develop is the mum's mental health."
That's something of which Alison McNulty, chief executive of TinyLife, which has recently received over £400,000 from Big Lottery Fund (via The National Lottery's "good causes money") to help parents struggling after having a premature baby, is all too aware.
"Every year 1,900 premature and sick babies are born in Northern Ireland making this an extremely worrying and difficult time for families," she says.
"A recent report published by TinyLife and Bliss showed that five out of seven neonatal units have no access to a mental health professional at a time when mothers of premature babies are 40% more likely to suffer from postnatal depression, and parental mental health can impact on the longer term outcomes for these vulnerable babies.
"We are therefore delighted that we are part of the partnership receiving £402,720 for this five-year project from Big Lottery Fund. Our collaboration with Parenting NI and Aware on our Positive Minds for Premature Parents Project means we can collectively deliver mental health and wellbeing activities for parents in the Northern and Southern Health and Social Care Trust areas.
"We're running activities including delivering parent support groups, workshops, baby massage, home-based volunteers, and specialist services for postnatal depression. We're also offering bespoke training to neonatal unit staff from each trust area."
As one of those parents, Laura believes a project like this would have made a huge difference to her.
"This is a fantastic project because families face a unique set of challenges," she says.
"In my own work one of the first things I tell people to ensure good mental health is to make sure they kept up their social networks yet that's just not possible with a premature baby.
"Having a baby is no picnic but all the things which are important for your mental health are hit 10 times harder when you've a premature baby.
"Amy is now doing well, she's a picture of health. She's just turned three and is full of mischief. Ours is a story with a happy ending - other parents face tougher battles."
Find out more about the work of TinyLife at www.tinylife.org.uk