Every mum longs to hear her newborn baby’s first cry. But the birth of Michelle Kee’s firstborn, Vera, was met with a deafening silence.
“My baby didn’t even cry when the doctor tried giving her oxygen to help her breathe. I noticed her skin was all blue [from the lack of oxygen],” shares the first-time mother, 30, a nurse.
Having breathed in some meconium before birth, Vera was whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) even before Michelle could hold her.
Meconium is the sticky greenish black stool that a newborn baby first passes after birth. The faeces had entered Vera’s airways and lungs.
Most babies pass their first stool in the first 24 hours after delivery, says Dr Joseph Manuel Gomez, head and senior consultant at NICU at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
But some babies who experience stress before or during birth may pass meconium into the amniotic fluid before they are born, he adds.
Amniotic fluid is the clear, colourless liquid surrounding the baby in the womb.
The stress can also cause the unborn baby to produce gasping movements while in the womb or when she is about to be born, says Dr Gomez.
As a result, she may breathe in the contaminated amniotic fluid. This condition is known as meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS).
Michelle’s first labour had seemed smooth sailing until the midwife broke her water bag during her final stage of labour, and discovered faeces in the amniotic fluid.
What happened next felt like a bad dream, shares Michelle.
Her uneventful 12-hour labour suddenly became a medical emergency.
As she struggled to push Baby out, Vera’s heart rate plummeted, indicating that she was in distress. To speed up the birth process, the doctor used forceps.
“At that time, I didn’t know that it was possible for an unborn baby to pass her first stool before she was born, and that it was a serious matter,” says Michelle.
MAS is dangerous to a newborn baby as it interferes with breathing, says Dr Gomez.
Complications can set in, resulting in low oxygen levels. A lack of oxygen to the brain can have devastating consequences including death and developmental delays.
According to Dr Gomez, babies with serious MAS require the aid of breathing machines.
About 5 per cent go on to develop chronic lung disease, a condition linked to increased risk of wheezing and chest infections in the first year of life.
These babies will also require long-term follow-up to check their growth and development, he adds.
Exhausted from the long labour, a traumatised Michelle could barely comprehend what happened.
The reality that she had almost lost her baby sank in only 15 minutes after, when her husband returned from the NICU. Thankfully by then, the medical team had successfully cleared Vera’s lungs and airways.
“I cried – first from the shock of the whole saga, then from feeling lost and helpless. Imagine not hearing your baby cry after pushing her out, and not knowing what is going to happen to her,” says Michelle.
Cries of relief
Mother and Baby were finally reunited three hours later. For the first-time mum, it was an emotional moment.
“It was the first time I could see my baby’s face and carry her. I was so happy and relieved to hear her crying although she had tubes going in and out of her tiny body,” she shares.
Until today, Michelle doesn’t know what exactly caused the labour complication in the delivery room.
“My doctor said overdue babies have a higher risk of this complication, but I was only at 38 weeks when I went into labour naturally,” she says.
Treated with antibiotics and oxygen therapy, Vera was discharged with a clean bill of health after a six-day hospital stay.
With prompt treatment, most of these babies usually turn out fine and recover without any long-term complications, says Dr Gomez.
Michelle has since given birth to her second child. This time, the natural delivery went without a hitch, and she could hold her baby and breastfeed immediately after the birth.
Although Vera escaped unscathed from the incident, Michelle found herself worrying about her second-time labour and delivery – unlike her first pregnancy.
“The incident didn’t put me off having another child so soon, but it certainly taught me not to take things for granted, even when a pregnancy seems to be going well,” she says.
Can you prevent a delivery nightmare?
Your unborn baby can experience stress before or during birth.
This can occur when the amount of oxygen she receives via the placenta drops, says KKH’s Dr Gomez.
To prevent this type of stress, take these following measures before labour.
● Get early treatment for any medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or respiratory disease like asthma.
● Your pregnancy should not progress beyond 41 weeks.
● Quit smoking.
This article was first published in the print issue of Young Parents in 2015.
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