I love animals. I grew up with a menagerie of dogs, budgies, hamsters and rabbits. I volunteered to help at animal sanctuaries as a teenager and have been a vegetarian for 25 years. A few days ago Sissyboo (desperate for a dog we don’t have the time or lifestyle to look after properly) asked her evil no-you-can’t-have-a-dog Mummy what my favourite animal was. She expected me to say dogs and guilt me into letting her have one. And for most of the last 36 years ‘dogs’ would have been my answer. But since last year, I’ve had a new one: kangaroos. It surpised her, but probably won’t surprise many of you.
Today is International Kangaroo Care Awareness Day. I had never heard of kangaroo care before having Mr Boo. In my experience it’s one of the few nice things you learn about as the parent of a premature baby. In our first NICU I was given a leaflet by Bliss which gave lots of great advice on the apparently miraculous effect of skin-to-skin cuddles (better monitor readings and saturation levels; the promotion of intense bonding between parent and baby). I struggled to believe it or understand how a baby on a ventilator could be safely removed from their plastic box, but was enthusiatic to try, to try to hold my baby.
When Mr Boo was a few days old, we were all set to give this a go and I was so excited as I drove to see him that morning. But when I got there I found he was ill with suspected meningitis. He was far too ill to be removed from the incubator. Then, almost as soon as he recovered, he was whisked to a NICU nearer home (he was born 65 miles from where we live). Sadly, our local hospital did not actively promote kangaroo care. I asked about it and just kept getting a response of ‘soon’. Mr Boo had started to desaturate badly after feeds (it turned out to be severe silent reflux), they thought it wasn’t a good idea. I agreed it probably wasn’t, but my heart was heavy.
And then one day, an experienced NICU nurse called Sally who’d been on leave for the previous week came on duty and talked to me about the gruelling expressing schedule I was on (every 3 hours all through the day). She asked me if I wanted to breastfeed Mr Boo. I laughed and then realised she was being serious. And then she asked me how kangaroo care was going. She was appalled when I said I had been told to wait. She said there was no reason to. Mr Boo was on Optiflow but he would be fine out of the incubator for short periods and his sats might just improve, she told me. She said if I wanted to try to breastfeed, although it might not work of course, I should start kangaroo care now.
All those weeks of missed cuddles. I had to make up for them.
At just 32 weeks gestation, 3 weeks after he was born, I had my first skin-to-skin cuddle with Mr Boo, thanks to Sally. It was magical. He didn’t desat. In fact, his sats improved immeasurably just as she’d predicted. Not only that, but to our great surprise he started to root around and attempted in his tired, 32-week way to breastfeed. ‘They’re not supposed to have the suck, breathe, suck reflex at this gestation,’ Sally said. ‘But these babies don’t read the manuals or they wouldn’t here in the first place.’
3 weeks later, we left the NICU with an exclusively breastfed baby. He still was 10 months later, I only gave up so I could go back to work (and drink more coffee!). I never expected to breastfeed Mr Boo (I managed just 6 weeks with his healthy, term sister) and feel far too much pressure is placed on women to breastfeed whether their babies are prem or not. But kangaroo cuddles created a bond between Mr Boo and I, regardless of the feeding, that is stronger than I could have imagined.
Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of me doing kangaroo care. The Grumposaur was away with work for 7 days the week I started and came back with a flu that left him unable to see Mr Boo for another 2 weeks. So no one was there to take pics of us, but the memories will never fade. And Mr Boo’s favourite way to sleep even now at 13 months is still his kangaroo cuddle.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I blog anonymously (no one who knows me knows I write it) and I don’t usually post pictures. But this is a very important day, so I’m making an exception. Here is Mr Boo a couple of weeks after coming home and 3 before his due date.
Kangaroo cuddles don’t have to stop in the NICU! I hope you have some with your babies today wherever you are.