Premature babies: what you need to know

I found her rocking in her chair and she told me that I look just like her daughter, her last born who was born at the Kenyatta National Hospital as a premature baby 33 years ago.

Mrs. Khavukwi Muhenje went to the mantle and came back with a large family photo then showed me her last born who is now a woman with her own family. As she stares at the photo, she vividly recalls the night when her husband rushed her to the hospital after she complained of a severe headache and her swollen feet already had a tingling feeling.

Upon arrival, the doctors discovered that her blood pressure had shot up and that she was not going to carry her baby to term. The doctors asked her husband who they should save in the event that they were unable to save both of them.

He signed the forms as tears streamed from his eyes because he did not want his child to die as they had been eagerly waiting and he really hoped it was a girl to add to his big family of two girls and seven boys. Luckily both mother and child survived.

“When I saw her, she was not bigger than a half a kilogram of meat. She had intravenous tubes all over her and was in an incubator. I could not do anything but cry as I felt so sorry for her. There was an Israeli doctor who had come for some kind of exchange program who really encouraged me and told me that he was not going to give up on my baby,” said Muhenje

The baby had very many problems because some of her organs were not fully formed and she also suffered from jaundice, a condition that the mother had never heard of before.

The saddest thing for her is that she had much breast milk but her child could not consume it all. As she recovered, she was warned against having more children because of her condition. She understood about her condition and opted to go for a tubal ligation procedure as a form of birth control.

The kind nurses would come to me and ask me to kindly express some milk for other babies who had lost their mums and I would gladly do it, thus giving me some sort of reprieve from long days in the wards.

It was months before the couple could walk out of the hospital with their baby but the hospital. There had been many scares as the poor child fought for her life.

“I shed so many tears every day and worried a lot which also affected my health. The other children I left at home also suffered and were worried about their little sister. The whole family was affected and my husband had to take so many days off work to be with us or make important decisions for our baby,” she narrated.

“We were also affected financially because I have always been a housewife and my husband an accountant. We had a large family and things were really hard on us,” she continued

Although Laura suffered poor health for a long time, she is also the brightest child I have. She has always been quick on her feet and seeing her get her own kids without any complications makes me very happy.

Khavukwi is one of the lucky mothers whose baby survived and went on to live a normal life thanks to modern technology and skills by doctors. Some mothers, however, walk into hospital pregnant and walk out empty handed and any mother can tell you that being in such a situation is quite heartbreaking.

A case in point is the recent case of Mrs. Jacinta Ochieng from Oyugis in Nyanza province who lost her quintuplets because their fragile and underdeveloped lungs were unable to fight off pneumonia which is a serious condition, especially for babies.

The 30-year-old first gave birth to two boys at her home in Kachieng East Kamagak in Kasipul Sub County but they both died.

When she complained of pain, she was rushed to Matata Nursing Home in Oyugis town and gave birth to two girls and a boy.

The whole country mourned with Mrs. Ochieng and we pray that in due time she will hold other babies in her arms.

Jacinta (left)

Premature births fact file

  1. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Preterm birth, as all births before 37 weeks of gestation.
  2. Preterm births are a leading cause of death among children under five in Kenya and in the world
  3. Kenya is among the 15 countries with the highest number of preterm babies. Globally, about 15 million babies are born too soon each year.
  4. Preterm babies are vulnerable and thousands can be saved if they receive extra care.
  5. Severely premature babies need intensive care,  specialist skills and equipment such as incubators and respirators.
  6. Babies who are born closer to 32 weeks (just over 7 months) may not be able to eat, breathe, or stay warm on their own. But after these babies have had time to grow, most of them can leave the hospital.
  7. Babies born earlier than 26 weeks (just under 6 months) are the most likely to have serious problems. If your baby was born very small or sick, you may face hard decisions about treatment
  8. Premature birth can be caused by a problem with the fetus, the mother, or both. Often the cause is never known. The most common causes include:
  • Problems with the placenta.
  • Pregnancy with twins or more.
  • Infection in the mother.
  • Problems with the uterus or cervix.
  • Drug or alcohol use during pregnancy.
Kangaroo method used to help preterm babies. Photo courtesy of YouTube
  1. Most health facilities in Kenya do not have enough incubators and babies have to share them, which often cause cross-infection.

10.In some cases, preterm babies are moderately premature and can be saved with simple solutions such as the Kangaroo method where the mum holds her baby close to her chest for her warmth.

  1. Already, KMC has been introduced in 20 counties and hundreds of health workers trained.

12.The World Prematurity Day is celebrated on  November 17 and this year’s theme was ‘Let them thrive! – Respectful care for the Smallest’.

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