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Unexpected babies: the mother of all shocks

What's it like when you have no idea that you are pregnant, then suddenly find yourself holding the baby? Kerry McKittrick talks to two Belfast women about the shock and joy of becoming a first-time mother

It's like an urban myth. The stories of women who managed to carry happy, healthy babies to full-term but have no idea that they're pregnant until they're almost due or, in some cases, until their waters break.

What is termed as a 'denied pregnancy' is when a pregnant woman exhibits no signs of her delicate condition – no swelling, normal periods, no morning sickness, not even feeling the baby move.

Tales come from across the globe about this phenomenon – a woman in New Jersey gave birth to a baby prematurely on her own front lawn and a British soldier reportedly gave birth to a baby in her eighth month of pregnancy while serving in Afghanistan.

There are stories of women with particularly bad period pains disappearing into toilets and returning with newborns in their arms.

And it seems this condition isn't as rare as you might think – it can affect one in every 600 women. Two young women for whom both pregnancy and delivery was a complete shock and which would change their lives forever talk about their experiences.

‘I could hear baby’s heartbeat ... I was in total shock’

Mairtin Hamilton (18) is studying childcare at Belfast Metropolitan College. She lives in Belfast with her month-old daughter Kiahanna Hamilton. She says:

I've always wanted to work with children. I'm training to work in a nursery at the moment and when I qualify for that I want to get more qualifications to work with children with special needs. I've always liked the idea of having a family but admittedly I hadn’t really envisaged doing that until I was 30 and settled with a partner and a mortgage.

Then earlier this year I felt I was putting on weight, particularly around my hips. I certainly didn’t have much of a stomach, I just noticed that I seemed to be getting a bit broader.

My sister Lauren encouraged me to lose weight and started going for walks with me and joining me for gym sessions. She’d also serve me up healthy food, such as salads. Some days I was so strict about what I ate that my tummy never seemed to stop rumbling.

But none of this seemed to make any difference. If anything, I kept putting on weight.

Eventually, Lauren suggested that my weight gain might be due to a hormone imbalance — even though I’m 18 I’d never had a period.

I went to see my doctor who chatted to me about what was wrong then told me to hop up onto the examining table. She turned on the ultrasound machine — and the next thing I heard was the baby's heartbeat! Then she told me that she thought I was about 32 weeks pregnant — seven months.

I was in total shock. I just listened to the rest of what my GP had to say on auto-pilot.

She said that the baby was sitting right in at my back which is why I didn't show. The doctor was fantastic and gave me lots of advice. She said that the butterflies in my stomach were actually the baby's movement, not my tummy rumbling to tell me I was hungry.

I wasn't in a relationship with Kiahanna's daddy; he was just a good friend. I knew I had options when it came to contraception but things happened so quickly we didn't even think about it.

As I said, when I actually discovered that I was about to have a baby I was so stunned that it didn’t sink in and I just carried on as normal for an hour or so.

I left the doctor's surgery and went back to work — I was on nursery placement with my childcare course.

About an hour later, though, I called Lauren and told her the news over the phone. By then, I was panicking completely; I was crying and I didn't know what to do. But Lauren was great. She was very calm and said although the news was a shock she would help me. She told me that everything would be OK. She works for care in the community and is very good with people — and those strengths really came into play when I needed her support.

I was dreading telling mum what had happened and was so grateful when Lauren offered to break the news for me. As it happened, however, mum was great about it. She came upstairs and gave me a hug. She was really comforting and supportive.

When Kiahanna was born the room in the hospital had seemed really busy but when they put her into my arms all the hustle and bustle just stopped. It was so emotional, everything was very quiet and all of a sudden she was my world, my precious princess. It was the most amazing feeling ever.

Looking back, the moment that I found out I was pregnant was terrible. Kiahanna's daddy didn't want to be around. The pregnancy wasn't planned and I had no idea what to do. But I’ve been very fortunate — I have had real support from my family.

I was able to finish my placement, then take the final month of my pregnancy easy. During those last few weeks I had an awful lot of things to organise — I’d to buy all the things I needed like clothes and a cot.

Obviously, because I’d no idea I was expecting, I didn't look after myself the way most women would if they were pregnant, and yet thankfully everything turned out alright.

Kiahanna was born a perfectly healthy 8lbs 3oz baby which was a huge relief to everyone.

“She was certainly a surprise, but I love her to bits, she's my wee dote, and I wouldn’t change anything for the world.

“In September, I’m going back to finish my education and qualify as a nursery assistant. Mum, who also works for care in the community and does nights, is going to look after the baby during the day while I’m in class and on placement. What’s important now is being able to provide Kiahanna with the very best future possible.”

'I thought pain was a kidney infection'

Alannah Hamill (24) studies childcare at Belfast Metropolitan College and lives in Belfast with her son Philip (3). She says:

Having children has never been on my radar. When I was around 16 I was told that because I have tyrosinemia – a metabolic condition – and diabetes insipidus, it was highly unlikely that I would ever have children.

I accepted the news and just got on with things. As far as I was concerned raising a family was one of those things that just wasn't going to happen for me.

Consequently, I didn't think about contraception very much, either – from what the doctor told me there really wasn't much point in me going on to some form of birth control.

But then one day three years ago I started having pains in my side. I assumed it was a kidney infection – I tend to get a lot of those because of the diabetes. I walked round to the Mater Hospital, which is close to where I live. I thought they would give me a course of antibiotics and send me home again – in fact I was so certain that I would be treated quickly I didn't even bring my phone with me.

I couldn't have been more wrong, however. Soon after the doctor examined me they told me that it wasn't a kidney infection, that I was in fact pregnant and full-term at that.

I don't know who was more shocked – me or the doctor. I had no idea at all that I was pregnant – I even had periods the whole time and I had no bump at all.

Again, because of my underlying health issues they told me that although I wasn't in labour I was being rushed straight to the Royal Maternity Hospital. At this point I was in shock. As I said, I didn't even have my phone with me to call anyone.

Luckily, I was able to remember my grandad's home telephone number and the hospital gave me a phone to ring him. When I got through to him. I asked him to call my partner and tell him to contact me via the hospital.

When my partner got in touch I told him what was going on and I think he went into shock, too.

It was when they took me to the Royal Maternity Hospital that the shock turned to panic. I was really scared of what my parents, especially my dad, were going to say.

My parents, however, were fantastic. They came to the hospital and were very supportive all the way through.

I went into labour two days later and as soon as that happened they went out and bought everything – baby grows, a cot, a pushchair. Obviously I didn't' have a single bit of baby paraphernalia.

Philip was born naturally with no complications. The doctors said he was likely to be very small as I was so small and I wasn't showing. As it turned out he was 8lbs 10oz. It was a natural birth and I didn't have any problems. Despite the shock of it all, I fell in love with him at first sight. When Philip was put into my arms I bonded with him straight away and couldn't believe how happy I was.

Philip came along on the Friday and we stayed in the hospital over the weekend. They showed me how to feed, change and bath him because I didn't know how to do anything. When I took him home for the first few weeks I was so scared. I was totally unprepared and he was so tiny – I kept thinking I would hurt him accidentally.

My partner and I were in shock for those first few months because Philip wasn't planned or expected. When he was born I had just been made redundant from my job. I didn't have to worry about explaining my new situation to an employer. Now, though, I've gone back to college to study childcare and will be completing my NVQ3 next year.

Philip's dad and I aren't together any more but he lives around the corner and he sees him all the time. Mum and Dad adore Philip, too, and take him at weekends to give me a break. They all want him so much they almost fight over him!

He's my wee miracle and I love him to pieces. I don't plan to have any more kids at the moment but I'm still young so things might change.

I've certainly paid more attention to contraception since he was born, though!"

... could some women be in denial?

This rare condition affects one in 600 women, though a Serbian study estimates that one in 7,225 pregnancies is unknown to the mum until she's actually is in labour!

You don't have to have underlying health issues or be overweight to miss the signs and symptoms of pregnancy, although Mayo Clinic says most women can expect to put on 25 to 30 pounds during pregnancy.

According to one German study called 'Denial of pregnancy: a review and case reports', not paying enough attention to your body is one way you may not notice.

The study shows "the absence of many physical symptoms of pregnancy, inexperience, general inattentiveness to bodily cues, intense psychological conflicts about the pregnancy, and external stresses can contribute to the denial in otherwise well-adjusted women."

Another cause of a denied pregnancy is the incorrect use of pregnancy tests. These might be 99% accurate nowadays but a test might not be reliable if the instructions are not followed correctly or if the test is taken too early to detect the pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG).

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