Tell us a little bit about yourself: where are you and your partner from? How long have you been living here? What is your baby’s name?

My name is Jessica, and I am Irish. I have been living in Belgium for nearly 11 years, and my partner Karel, 6. He is of Dutch parentage, but grew up in Canada. In 2018 we were expecting our first child (Noa – female).

Was Noa arriving near her due date?

Noa arrived 6.5 weeks early, while I was on a work trip in London.

First photo ever.

She was due to be born on 23 December at Delta Hospital in Auderghem.

In the end she was born on 9 November, in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington [editor: in London, United Kingdom] weighing 1.6kg.

At 33 weeks, the birth of your baby should still have been a long way off. What was the sign that something wasn’t quite right?

This was to be my last trip abroad for work, and in fact, I was due to fly to Ireland after it for a wedding. That would have been my last flight. I was signed off by my doctor at 31 weeks for the flight.

I had been feeling off for a couple of days, but nothing too bad. The day I went into hospital, I was convinced I was having late-onset morning sickness, but then in the evening I began to feel terrible.

I couldn’t shake it at all, and tried to sleep. I was on my own in my hotel (as I was travelling for work). In the end I rang my boyfriend and he didn’t pick up and then I rang my mum.

She told me to ask at reception for a doctor. They didn’t help at all and told me there was a hospital 500m away (which I had Googled) and that I could walk…so I did!

I presented at Accident & Emergency at about 11.30pm [on the Wednesday evening], was seen about midnight, then sent for tests and was in the labour ward by 1.30am, and in the high dependency unit by 2.30am….and Noa was born less than 24 hours later. 

“I was very lucky that this was the closest hospital – they are specialised in premature births … I could have been sent there anyway.”

Had you had any inkling that anything was wrong earlier in the pregnancy?

At 20 weeks they thought there may have been an issue with placental blood, but by 26 weeks it had rectified itself and I wasn’t worried.

However, at 31 weeks I had a bad histamine allergic reaction (to avocado) and I thought nothing of it, but my gynaecologist later thought this may been PET setting in [editor: Pre-Eclamptic Toxaemia (PET) – also know as just pre-eclampsia – is a pregnancy complication characterised by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, most often the liver and kidneys].

But overall I was super healthy and active so I thought little of it!

You were in hospital all alone, abroad … how fast could your partner get there?

Karel arrived about 3pm on Thursday 8 November (I had been admitted that same day, just after midnight). He took a Eurostar, and my parents flew from Ireland. They arrived around the same time. They all stayed in a local hotel.

I had my phone with me and so I could call and message them, but the battery died around midday [on Thursday] and so I couldn’t contact anyone until they just showed up!

I will admit that was awful…once my lifeline was dead I was very lonely. I had no books, nothing…so when Karel arrived I did cry!

So, how did things unfold?

I had contractions (not many and far apart) the evening after I was admitted to hospital [i.e. the Thursday evening] and they did consider an induction, but the first doctor who had seen me when I was admitted was not happy with this and in the end prepped me for a c-section after midnight / very early morning Friday.

Although I was not prepared for this, I felt like I was in good hands and that it was the right decision.

“I had no birth plan or ‘perfect idea’ of what I wanted, which I feel allowed me to roll with the punches and just follow the advice I was given.”

Once I was prepped for the c-section, things went wrong in terms of me and baby – heart rate (baby) and blood pressure (me) – and so I was rushed for an emergency c-section, which took 5 minutes.

She was fine, if not super tiny, so daddy and baby were whisked off to NICU and I was left to be put back together!

How were the first hours and days after Noa’s birth? Were you able to be with her?

The first few hours are really a blur, I think I slept (bearing in mind I was awake about 36 hours by the time she was born and I was never in labour…).

Karel went to the NICU with Noa once she was born and then went back and forwards between us. He was with her the majority of the time. Feeding her (with a syringe-tube that was fed into her tummy via her nose). That was great, it helped me a lot.

The first time Jessica was able to hold Noa, about 36 hours after she was born.

“I didn’t get to see her until 36 hours after her birth.”

I wasn’t allowed to see her until I had transitioned out of the high dependency unit to the normal ward.

That was hard but at the same time I was attached to a million things and totally shattered so it was probably for the best. Also, even after this she was never with me, I always had to go to her.

[Once back on the normal ward] I was sharing with three others. None of the women in my ward had access to their babies (I think this was quite sensible and one girl had yet to have her baby).

How did Noa’s condition progress in the NICU and how long did she have to stay?

On the Sunday she took a turn however and had to have air taken from her lungs. That was very upsetting. I had to go back to bed I got so stressed. She had been moved to the emergency NICU part not the regular part.

“In the end, she (only) spent 16 days in NICU, and was about 1.8kg when she left.”

Were your partner and family able to stay all that time?

Karel was able to stay until Noa was totally fine after her turn [and went back to Belgium]. It was hard nonetheless to see him go but we had no choice as we were moving apartment that week and someone had to do it!

He came back 10 days later, by which time I was out, Noa was still in and my mum and I were staying with friends.

“It was tough [for Karel to not be with us all the time], but he was a superstar! My parents were great too, everyone just crowded around and subbed in and out to look after me, provide accommodation, etc.”

How do you feel that you and your partner coped with Noa’s particularly dramatic arrival?

Considering it was an overwhelming experience, I think we both functioned on adrenaline and coped very well, in fact one of the doctors told me I was exceptionally calm.

I was just coping, and there were a few times after the birth, alone on the NHS public ward where I cried and felt very sorry for myself.

Cuddles in the NICU.

“My family were complete superstars with my mum and sister subbing in for my partner when he was not with me/us, as he had to work and move apartment (build baby furniture, etc).”

In terms of care, I was so well looked after by the midwives (in particular) and the doctors. I have a massive respect for the NHS [editor: UK health system]. Also, my daughter received state of the art care for the 16 days she was in the NICU.

We donated money to the foundation that supports this ward afterwards.

What was it like when you returned to Belgium?

VIB – Very Important Baby!! Business class Eurostar back to Brussels!

Once I returned to Belgium I had no support however, as my daughter was not born here. I found this quite lonely and was rather lost in the system.

I had a lot of administrative headaches with the commune and my mutuelle, Partenamut.

“In the end I found that going to Partenamut in person was the only way to get thing done.”

My GP / family doctor was fabulous in terms of after-care for Noa, which she required until she was 2.5kg.

After this, upon my GPs recommendation I started to avail of the ONE services, and have been bringing Noa ever since. I find this very useful, and even partook in two baby massage classes.

How was your experience of feeding Noa?

Noa was bottle-fed from day one. She required extra calorie formula until 4.5 months old. In general we managed well and she has never been very tough to feed, although her appetite is often impacted by vaccinations or flying.

We used anti-colic bottles to start with and the Tommee Tippee perfect prep (a life saver for bottle fed babies), but after a while she was just using standard bottles.

Had you done anything to prepare for labour and birth, e.g. prenatal classes, yoga, hypnobirthing etc?

I hadn’t done anything baby-specific to prepare for birth. I never made it to my prenatal course. I did do yoga, but regular yoga (with adaptions) and not pre-natal as I found it very boring – it was not for me.

I do not think I would do anything different, and in any case, nothing would not have prepared me for what I went through (so I am told!). I did wish I had made my prenatal class, if only to have some mummy friends.

Is there anything you would do differently – or the same – should there be a next time?

As I mentioned above, I did not have birth plan or an ideal birth in mind, and I am glad I didn’t, I think it was my saving grace.

However, if I have another child I will not travel after 30 weeks and I will be heavily monitored, and I would hope to have the baby a bit later and in the right place!

Any closing thoughts?

I did not have an easy start, but I have a great baby that eats, sleeps, smiles and loves crèche. I am very grateful for this.

In terms of support, the NHS staff were my saviours and Irish Passport office too.

Noa’s emergency travel document, to get her back to Belgium.

In addition, while I was in the UK, Partenamut provided a lot of support by phone, and were very helpful in getting Noa back to Belgium, for which I am very thankful.

When I came to Belgium, it was more complicated, but mainly due to the online systems not working at the speed necessary. I would advise any new mummy to go to their provider in person: this was the most effective solution for me.

The commune were not very useful, quite frankly, as I did not fit the ‘one size fits all, baby born in Belgium box’, but I cannot complain about the rest.

“If you are having issues, like me, with a baby born abroad I recommend a letter from the Embassy (it is helpful)!”

Also, as I had no mummy friends I did mummy baby yoga, and I wish I had started sooner, I really enjoyed it, and found a new yoga studio in the process.

Hopefully, I will have a better start next time, but in the end we are all healthy and that is what matters!