How premature babies grow

– by Fiona Mylchreest

Why do premature babies grow as they do? Fiona Mylchreest, mother of five and wife of Borne Chairman, reflects on her children’s experiences.

I always got a bit mixed up with biology and evolution and the story of God creating the world. I could see a resemblance between people and apes which made it all sort of plausible; the seven days seemed a bit far fetched and I didn’t see where the dinosaurs fitted in. With my children, it’s been endlessly fascinating. I’ve stared and stared at my babies and wondered about genes and evolution and how babies grow.

I have grey eyes; my husband has green eyes. My sons have grey eyes and my daughters have green eyes. That’s quite nice, though a little strange as my boy-girl twins don’t even have the same eyes.

Premature babies are fascinating. They don’t have much fat under their skin so they look all wrinkled, like wise old men. They have tiny tiny hands and feet, the subject of endless cute photos (I took some too, I admit it). Those teeny hands and feet have perfect tiny nails, nails which grow and even have to be cut. Can you imagine cutting a baby’s nails when his entire finger is narrower than a piece of spaghetti? Finn’s hands and feet were all splinted up to protect the needles which went into his veins so all that protruded from the bandages were fingers and toes with claw-like nails.

Very premature babies are hairy. The hair disappears, but early appearances are disconcerting, as there may be body hair and not hair on the head. Actually, I never saw the heads of my two most premature babies; when they are on ventilators they wear tiny knitted hats to keep their heads warm and the ventilators are tied to the strings. I remember Finn had a peach coloured hat which I loathed because it made his skin look livid, in fact like liver. My sister knitted lots and lots of pale blue hats from dollies’ knitting patterns, but we were stuck with the horrid peach for weeks.

“Why, when he was so very tiny, barely one kilo, was he growing nails instead of getting bigger?”

Finn had an eye mask (long-haul airplane style) to protect his eyes from the UV lights he was often, indeed mostly, under because of his jaundice. When the mask came off his eyes only fluttered open (grey like mine). I say fluttered because he had the most ridiculous long eyelashes; when I held him up close it felt like butterflies on my cheek.Fiona Mylchreest holds her premature son’s hand in a NICU incubator.

That’s when I started thinking, in those long hours of watching my baby sleep, that God had duffed up. Why did my baby have fingernails but yet he couldn’t digest any food, and was on one millilitre of breast-milk per hour? Why, when he was so very tiny, barely one kilo, was he growing nails instead of getting bigger? And why on earth, when he couldn’t begin to breathe for himself, did he have sweeping eyelashes? He had had steroids to develop his lungs a few hours before he was born, but nonetheless had horribly immature lungs and has chronic lung disease to this day.

Every day I thank God that Finn lived and for the medical expertise that made it possible. But I don’t understand why babies grow eyelashes before lungs and hope Borne can find some answers so fewer parents spend their days wondering.

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