'Going through two traumatic births definitely brought us even closer together'
Gabrielle Fagan talks to the chart-topping singer about the trauma of her first two pregnancies and the joy of being a mother-of-four
Sophie Ellis-Bextor's describing her traumatic introduction to motherhood, and there's unmistakeable emotion in her voice. "I couldn't even hold my baby straightaway," she says. "He was whisked away into an incubator. The whole thing was scary, daunting and certainly not what you expect."
The singer's first son, Sonny, conceived six weeks into a whirlwind romance with fellow musician Richard Jones, was born eight months later at just 32 weeks, weighing 3lb 8oz.
Her first sight of him was "seeing him like a tiny patient connected to machines with wires and tubes coming out of him". It was harrowing enough to experience that once, but against all the odds, five years later, her second son Kit also had to fight for life following another premature birth.
Kit was born at 31 weeks, weighing only 2lb 6oz, extremely vulnerable and even more fragile than his brother. "At one stage both of his lungs collapsed and he was on artificial respiration and morphine for a week. He looked just like a little doll. Richard and I never actually voiced the fear that we might lose him, but we definitely thought, 'We've got through this once, but are we really going to be lucky enough to have everything go right again?'
"It was scary and I worried there might be lasting issues for him. There were tears at times. It was very emotional, especially when I used to spend hours holding him on my chest so he could have skin-to-skin contact and hear my heartbeat. It helps you bond and is very special."
She's reliving her experiences as ambassador for the new Pampers Preemie Protection range of nappies, developed with the help of neonatal intensive care nurses, which will be supplied free to hospitals. Today her boys are healthy, strapping lads of 13 and 8. "Sonny's already 5'7" and Kit's tall, too - I think I'm raising giants. You'd never now dream either of them were premmies." They've been joined by Ray, 5, and Jesse, 17 months, who were "both born big, bonny babies".
Her "busy, chaotic, noisy" household of boisterous sons seems a world away from those frightening times spent by her babies as they were nursed in intensive care. Her fears of long-term problems proved groundless, but the memories are still sharp for the 38-year-old.
In contrast to her personal dramas, Ellis-Bextor's career's gone from strength to strength since she shot to fame in 2000 with the chart-topping single Groovejet (If This Ain't Love), a feat she's repeated on several occasions. She's just released her sixth album, aptly named Familia.
"I'd imagined this chilled birth with low lighting and lovely music, but the reality was very different. I hadn't felt right during my first pregnancy and kept saying, 'I look puffy', but everyone said, 'No, you look great'. We hadn't even got a nursery ready when suddenly at 31 weeks I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia (a condition that can send blood pressure soaring dangerously high) and was whisked into hospital," says the daughter of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis. She was only 24, and had just set up home with Jones.
"Sonny was delivered by caesarian section. All I had were photos of him at first but they finally wheeled me down to see him - I wasn't well after either birth. The moment you see your baby you just feel overwhelmed with this incredible love for this new little person." She reveals a family experience of premature birth helped her remain positive. "My sister, Martha, now 26, was born 10 weeks early when I was aged 11 and I had very strong memories of seeing her in hospital in an incubator and then seeing her grow up into a healthy, happy girl. Remembering that helped me counter any thoughts that it all might go horribly wrong," she says.
Although she was reassured by doctors it was highly unlikely she'd suffer pre-eclampsia again, 31 weeks into her second pregnancy, when she sought medical permission to fly to perform in Moscow, she was diagnosed with the condition. Kit was 3lb 10oz when he was finally allowed home at 37 weeks.
"It was even more scary and very worrying with Kit because he was so very small, but I hadn't any experience of a normal, full-term birth so you just cope. You know this new little person is relying on you. But it's quite isolating having a premature baby in intensive care, because your role as a parent is a bit limited and you're not your child's sole carer. It's all so medical and it makes being able to get involved, by doing something normal like changing their nappy, much more special," she says.
"Full-size nappies, which you have to cut down or fold and seem massive, are just another big visual reminder that your baby's not full-term. It's hard enough seeing people happily wandering around with newborns and knowing you can't do that."
About 60,000 babies are born premature in the UK each year, representing one in 10 pregnancies. Premature births are defined as babies born at 37 weeks or less.
Ellis-Bextor, who competed in Strictly Come Dancing in 2013, and Jones, bassist with The Feeling, will soon celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary. "We were young when we got together and getting pregnant so quickly was a bit of a surprise to say the least. It certainly added a different dimension to dating, but when it happened my wise mum said, 'It might not be the right time, but it's the right baby', which was comforting."
"We didn't put any pressure on ourselves about what the future held for us, we just let it unfold. We've grown up together really, and going through those two traumatic births definitely brought us even closer together. What I love is that we've been a family right from the outset because Sonny came so quickly.
"I always wanted to be a young mum and had experience of babies through my siblings, but Richard hadn't. It made it even more amazing how great he was throughout it all. He's my rock really, and so steady and unflappable, whereas I'm much more up and down, so we make a great team."
She has no dreams of adding to her brood. "People always say, 'I bet you'd like a girl', but it's never been something that's important to me. I'd hate any of my little boys to think I was ever disappointed or expecting them to be anyone else than who they are. They are all lovely little individuals who are full of character. I love our noisy, chaotic household just as it is, and four children is quite a lot. I don't think I'm one of those women who declare they're 'done' when they've completed their family, that's not my style. I think maybe I'll just not have another one."
Sophie Ellis-Bextor is the ambassador for the new Pampers Preemie Protection range for premature babies. Visit www.pampers.co.uk