This year’s World Prematurity Day, observed on 17 November, urges us to care for the future by coming together and supporting babies born too soon. Sarah Cressey, Co-Director and Head of the Johannesburg branch of The Grace Factory, an NPO that gives practical assistance to moms and babies in need during the first few weeks of motherhood and infancy, stresses the importance of doing so. “Preterm birth forces parents to confront the fragility and mortality of their infants. Parents are left feeling powerless and helpless and often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, preventing the normative transition into parenthood,” explains Cressey.
“It’s difficult enough – having to cope with the premature birth of your child. Now, on top of that, many families are struggling due to the limited visitation of parents to the NICU,” says Staśa Jordan, Executive Director at the South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR).
On average, one in seven babies is born prematurely in South Africa. Globally, 15 million babies are born preterm, and of these, one million die due to complications and lack of proper healthcare. Premature babies are born before 37 week’s gestation. They often have a meagre birth weight of under 1 000 grams and are susceptible to visual, hearing, behavioural, learning, and motor skills complications.
“It’s a stressful and emotional rollercoaster that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” says Justin Snow, father of baby Björn who has spent over 60 days in hospital.
Björn, twin brother to Rorik, was born eight weeks early on 9 September. A low-birth-weight baby, he weighed 1,7kg. “For a premature baby this isn’t small,” explains Snow. “Both boys had a lower risk of Necrotising Entero Colitis (NEC), a very aggressive form of sepsis that attacks the small intestine of the premature baby, commonly associated with artificial feeding,” adds Jordan.
The twins were put on a specialised artificial feed rich in probiotics. Rorik thrived but his brother, unfortunately, did not. Björn is still on life support, fighting off the infection and receiving a mix of Mothers-Own-Milk (MOM) and donated breastmilk from the SABR.
“Prematurity is paired with challenges and heart-stopping moments,” says Dr Marietjie Slabbert, a doctor at Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital (RMSH) in Kimberley.
Baby Nthando was born prematurely at RMSH two months ago. He weighed a mere 870 grams at birth – the average healthy baby carried to full-term weighs 2.5 to 3.5 kg at birth. Nthando’s mother, Sarah Ditsebe, went into early labour due to the emotional stress of suddenly losing her mom.
Ditsebe has also struggled with milk production due to overwhelming stress. “It’s unbelievable having such a small baby,” she explains. “I’m unable to feed him or change his diaper out of fear of hurting him because he is so tiny; some days are so difficult! Gillian Joseph, a co-ordinator for the SABR, has been my saving grace. She provides my baby with the milk that he needs to start the journey to becoming a healthy baby. Over and above that, she has supported me on this journey by providing much-needed counselling, motivation, and encouragement,” she adds.
Ditsebe urges other mothers to believe in their little ones: “I have given birth to my hero; he is a fighter! My baby Nthando now weighs 2 200 grams and is on his way to recovery,” she explains.
Under the Mother and Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, a growing number of tertiary public hospitals across South Africa have lodger facilities for mothers with babies in the NICU to support lactation and proximity for the dyad. This November, tertiary hospitals with NICUs nationwide will host events and activities in support of premature babies; aiming to educate and support mothers and fathers, and showing mothers that they are cared for.
The SABR and The Grace Factory have prepared 50 maternity packs with essential toiletries and baby care items that will be distributed at RMSH. “It’s our goal to distribute at least 200 prematurity packs throughout November, but we need help,” says Cressey. “A contribution of R300 will help us put one pack together for a mother and baby in need. Please consider donating in support of World Prematurity Day,” she concludes.