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TinyLife and the Neonatal Network Northern Ireland mark World Prematurity Day – 17 November 2021

This is the logo for the NI Neonatal Network

TinyLife and the Neonatal Network Northern Ireland will today join healthcare colleagues across the world in celebrating World Prematurity Day 2021. Every year on 17 November this international day of observance raises awareness of the many challenges that premature babies and their families face.

Every year in Northern Ireland 1,900 babies are born prematurely. In 2018 one baby in every 13 babies born prematurely required specialist care in a Neonatal Unit in NI.

Alison McNulty, Chief Executive of TinyLife, said, “World Prematurity Day provides us the opportunity to highlight the range of issues faced by parents of premature babies across Northern Ireland. This year’s theme of zero separation addresses the impact of COVID-19 restrictions and the psychological challenges to the baby, family and staff delivering neonatal care. Through collaboration and innovation we have worked together to support neonatal families during this time. By striving to keep parents and babies born prematurely together we recognise that parents are not merely visitors; parents play an essential role in delivering care to their baby.

“By promoting zero separation we also highlight the importance of feeling connected with people who have a similar experience. We acknowledge the impact on mental wellbeing of families who may not have reached out for additional support, especially post discharge. At TinyLife we are here to provide support, advice and information in Neonatal Units, family homes and local communities.”

Through the Neonatal Network NI TinyLife, and the five Health & Social Care Trusts, the Public Health Agency and the Health and Social Care Board, are working with many other stakeholders such as Queen’s University Belfast, to ensure appropriate engagement and participation with neonatal families.

Geraldine Nolan, Mum of baby twins Aodhan and Barra, said, “The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) was somewhere I wasn’t aware of before finding myself smack bang in the middle of it. Naively, I had never really given it much thought before, it always existed in other people’s scary birth stories, never in mine. The reality is, it’s the place where my tiny humans, went to fight for their lives after being born 3 months too soon. Aodhan and Barra were born at 29 weeks, after I had a placenta abruption whilst driving to work. NICU is the place where the most amazing people work and who helped to save my babies’ lives. Thank you to TinyLife Family Support Worker Helen, who listened to me, she shared, and she cares. This World Prematurity Day I would like people to know, though our babies are small, they are mighty”.

Dr Aiveen Higgins, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Northern Trust said, “Having a baby on a neonatal unit presents enormous psychological challenges for the baby and family and this has been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents ordinarily struggle with trauma, loss and separation from their new-born. The pandemic, and resultant COVID-19 guidelines, have exacerbated these feelings, with other family members unable to meet the new baby.  Face coverings and social distancing mean our parents may find it harder to connect to staff and other families. They might not have the same emotional and practical help from family and friends that was previously available.  Understandably, parents have concerns about keeping their vulnerable new-born safe and the pandemic adds another layer of worry to these concerns.

“Neonatal staff are very mindful of these challenges for the babies and their families and all staff play a role in supporting families. We recognise the vital importance of connection. During the pandemic use of virtual platforms, such as Zoom, was increased to facilitate communication and connection between the family and their baby, and also family and staff for times when face-to-face contact is not possible.

“Having a baby in a neonatal unit is a unique and challenging time in a family’s life and, like all my neonatal colleagues, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to meet babies at the very start of life and to be part of our families’ journeys at such a precious time.”

Heather Trouton, Chair of the Neonatal Network NI, said, “The primary role of the Network is to ensure safe consistent care across the region. Neonatal staff collaborate with partners to ensure the provision of holistic care to meet each family’s needs. Enabling families to link with loved ones through video calls is one such way staff are supporting neonatal families at this time.”

The Neonatal Network NI was established in 2013 to develop high quality services for premature babies and their families. The Network leads on the provision of specialist neonatal care through good practice and the development of safe, high quality services. The engagement and participation of staff and families are central to the work of the Network. Information about the Neonatal Network NI is available at www.hscboard.hscni.net/neonatalni/.

For further information about the work of the TinyLife premature baby charity and to learn about the support and resources they provide visit www.tinylife.org.uk.

Celebrate World Prematurity Day on social media by following the conversation at @tinylifecharity #neonatalni #WorldPrematurityDay.