Calls To Keep Parents And Premature Babies Closer

Nathalie Phan's son spent 109 days in intensive care after his birth. Rather than daily visits to see their fragile newborns, there's a push to accommodate more parents at hospital.

Born at just over 25 weeks and weighing only 845 grams, Athan and his parents had a long and uncertain road ahead of them.

"As soon as I was discharged, I was coming back to the hospital every morning to spend time with Athan and pump breast milk," Phan told 10 daily.

By morning, Phan was cuddling up to her newborn. By lunch, she was at home looking after her now two-year-old daughter, who was also born premature.

Athan Phan spent more than three months at hospital after his birth. IMAGE: supplied

There would be a nightly check up after dinner with her husband Cam, who was back at work, before they started again the next day.

"Leaving him, and seeing him connected isolated in the humidicrib connected to all of these wires and tubes was difficult," she said.

"But you know at the same time that was the safest place for him to develop and grow."

For Phan and her husband, this became a routine they "didn't think twice about".

But neonatologist Dr Robert Guaran believes we need to do more to keep premature babies and their parents close.

Every year, 27,000 babies are born prematurely in Australia -- that's around 1 in ten.

READ MORE: Premature Babies Given Fighting Chance With New Incubators

What often starts as a nutritional emergency, where the baby hasn't been growing well, can extend to lung development, when their lungs may not be mature enough to survive.

Of those 27,000 premature babies, about 1000 won't survive. For those who do, a path of difficult obstacles and possible long-term health complications lies ahead.

Nathalie's daughter, Athina Phan. IMAGE: supplied

"Once you get over the hump of early lung support that is needed and once nutrition gets going, the other challenges are infection and sometimes complications," Guaran told 10 daily.

This was the case for Athan and his parents, who had moved through a similar experience with their first daughter Athina.

"Even though we knew what to expect, it was difficult the second time round knowing what hurdles Athan had to go through," Phan said.

"He had a few blood transfusions, laser eye surgery, head ultrasounds and a hernia repair. It was a lot more to deal with."

"When I ask mothers what it's like leaving their baby in hospital, the usual response is it's the hardest thing I've had to do in my life," Guaran said.

Guaran, who is also a board director for the Miracle Babies Foundation, says he routinely sees families struggling with being away from their baby.

He said some hospitals are not equipped to support them.

"We need to change the structure of how the health system is funded to make sure babies can stay close to their mothers in hospital and that there are facilities to stay close to the child," he said.

Nathalie and her daughter Athina. Image: Supplied

Guaran advocates for a "home in hospital" approach whereby hospitals have all the facilities that a family would have at home.

"Think about a mother who has had a caesarean section and a premature baby. When she goes home, she can't drive," he explained.

"Some hospitals don't have anywhere for discharged mothers to lie down or rest."

It's an area of "transition" in Australia that Guaran said is proving to help families overseas, such as hospitals in the UK offering accommodation to parents of babies being treated in intensive care.

Guaran said there is no "magic bullet" to reducing preterm birth rates, with antenatal care remaining the best way to reduce risk.

But there is an increasing body of research, with Adelaide researchers this week confirming a "simple and cost-effective" way to help prevent premature births and their associated health complications.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide and Women's and Children's Hospital reviewed the results of 70 studies from around the world, involving 20,000 women.

The research team recommends daily supplements contain between 500 and 1000 milligrams of omega-3 with at least 500 milligrams of the omega-3 called DHA.ld, involving 20,000 women.

November 17 is World Prematurity Day that aims to increase awareness of preterm births as well as deaths and disabilities due to prematurity across the globe.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au

Featured image: supplied