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September 25, 2018

Maternal mental health is important for any new mum to be aware of but even more so for mothers of premature babies who are 40 per cent more likely to suffer from postnatal depression and other mental health conditions*. Now premature baby charity TinyLife is using money raised by National Lottery players to support parents like mum of three Laura Moreland from Belfast who struggled with postnatal depression.

Laura was already mum to Jack (now 8) and Daniel (now 4) when she discovered she was carrying little Amy. Her due date was mid-September 2015 but at just 31 weeks Laura’s waters broke. She was given steroids to help the baby’s lungs but just two weeks later, Amy had to be delivered on July 30.

“It was traumatic. The day we went in for what was a check-up I ended up being rushed by ambulance, under siren and flashing lights, to Antrim Hospital – you have to go where ever there’s a neo natal intensive care bed,” recalls Laura.

“Amy was 4lb 8oz and grey when she was born. She was on oxygen because her lungs were under-developed and she had to be fed through a tube into her stomach initially. The other challenge was maintaining her temperature and at one stage the doctors thought she had an infection so she even had to endure a lumbar puncture.

“You’re in this ward of new mums and their babies. It was heart-breaking to watch them and not even have Amy beside me.”

Discharged after a few days, Laura had to leave her tiny baby behind.

“It still makes me cry,” admits the east Belfast social worker and mum of three. Leaving her little girl behind in the hospital was the hardest thing Laura has ever had to do. But TinyLife, Northern Ireland’s only dedicated charity for parents of premature babies, was there to support Laura.

“I was given a breast pump at the hospital through TinyLife and a stash of hand-knitted bonnets and blankets which people donate. It’s such a simple thing but when you’re facing such a crisis it meant so much to know that someone cared enough to take the time to help you and your wee tote,” says Laura.

Amy was kept in for two weeks and two days, and when she was finally discharged Laura thought life would get back to normal. But because Amy had been born so early, Laura couldn’t go out with her. Stuck in the house, depression creeped over her.

“I wasn’t coping and at times I thought I was losing my mind. Once you’re at home again there’s no specialist support yet you’ve so many questions. I’d had two relatively normal pregnancies so why had my body failed me this time? What had I done that Amy should end up with this start in life?” she says.

In desperation one night Laura went rifling through information packs the hospital had given her. She found leaflets about TinyLife, whose incredible work with premature babies and their families is funded thanks to National Lottery players.

“I rang them that afternoon and the next morning I had a support worker in my home! I cannot tell you the difference that made.

“I could talk to someone who understood. TinyLife suggested coming along to some of their groups – everyone’s in the same boat so they don’t bring kids with sniffles and they don’t say ‘isn’t she tiny’. People don’t mean any harm but after the first few dozen times you get tired of explaining.

“I also went back to my GP who has been fantastic so I was able to address my mental health. I know through my own work (as a social worker) that one of the biggest indicators for how a child will develop is the mum’s mental health.”

That’s something Alison McNulty knows all too well. Alison is chief executive of TinyLife who, thanks to National Lottery players, have just received £400,000 to help parents struggling after having a premature baby, knows all too well.

“Every year 1,900 premature and sick babies are born in Northern Ireland making this an extremely worrying and difficult time for families,” she said.

“A recent report published by TinyLife and Bliss showed that five out of seven neonatal units have no access to a mental health professional at a time when mothers of premature babies are 40% more likely to suffer from postnatal depression, and parental mental health can impact on the longer term outcomes for these vulnerable babies.

“We are therefore delighted that we are part of the partnership receiving £402,720 for this five year project from Big Lottery Fund. Our collaboration with Parenting NI and Aware on our Positive Minds for Premature Parents Project means we can collectively deliver mental health and wellbeing activities for parents in the Northern and Southern Health and Social Care Trust areas.”

As one of those parents Laura believes a project like this would have made a huge difference to her.

“This is a fantastic project because families face a unique set of challenges,” she says.

“In my own work one of the first things I tell people to ensure good mental health is to make sure they kept up their social networks yet that’s just not possible with a premmy.

“Having a baby is no picnic but all the things which are important for your mental health are hit 10 times harder when you’ve a premmy.

“Amy is now doing well, a picture of health. She’s just turned three and is full of mischief. Ours is a story with a happy ending – other parents face tougher battles.”

But, thanks to National Lottery players, TinyLife are able to support those parents even better.

To learn more about TinyLife and the incredible work they do for parents in Northern Ireland, check out their website here:

*Report from Bliss and TinyLife, Northern Ireland Babies 2018

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