I have five fabulous children. That’s the happiness. All five were born prematurely, which sounds crazy, I know. But the thing is, we never knew why. I wasn’t kite-surfing or living on cabbage soup. There was no obvious reason, no drug to take, no behaviour to change. My middle son managed to survive inside me when I had appendicitis, but decided to arrive on Hogmanay while I was watching Midsummer Murders and eating a mince pie. He was 33 weeks. It makes no sense. We need to know why babies are born early to stop it happening.
I met some parents whose babies did not survive. I know that beyond my world of top-class hospitals, there are many more. That’s the sadness of prematurity day. And many babies who do make it suffer disabilities, some very severe. Here in London mothers and babies are already relatively safe, but in more rural areas and in less developed countries, childbirth is dangerous. In some countries where Borne carries out research there is no scanning in pregnancy so nobody knows a baby is premature until it is born tiny and unable to breathe.
It’s true that some tiny premmies grow up into big healthy successful adults. Many do not. Some die and many have lifelong problems associated with prematurity. My five between them have had, and in some cases still have, autism, cerebral palsy, food allergies even to breast milk, low immunity, chronic lung disease, dodgy eyes, teeth with no enamel, epilepsy. Some of these must be avoidable. Already there is progress in the use of steroids to develop the lungs of babies threatening to be born early and some promising research about lowering the incidence and severity of cerebral palsy.
I cannot imagine a different fabulous five. But I can imagine easier lives and futures with less uncertainty. Their prematurity, in two cases their fight to live more than the first few hours of their lives, has made them an extraordinarily resilient bunch. But still, autism makes the world a very frightening place. Allergies make socialising complicated. Epilepsy is life-threatening, every time, and terrifying to watch. Cerebral palsy is a lifetime of trying to train muscles which don’t quite receive messages from the brain, muscles to walk and talk, even sometimes muscles to beat your heart. There are much worse things in life than doing your teenager’s buttons or putting on splints, but it’s still heartbreaking.
Chelsea and Westminster was a first home for all my children. During the months I have lived there, I have explored the tardis that is the hospital. Through certain restricted doors there are laboratories where the Borne team are researching causes of premature labour in all its mysteries and complexities. That is the hope. There is so much to discover to make mothers and babies safer.
So on World Prematurity Day I celebrate the unique and special people that are my premature babies. I feel sadness for others born too soon to live. I hope that Borne will work out how to keep the next generation of would-be prems happily inside their mothers. I hope that the numbers on the front page of the Borne website that spin scarily upwards can finally begin to come down. And I hope that those babies that are born prematurely can receive expert care to allow them to live full and happy lives.