When Alex Warden’s son Van was welcomed to the world at only 31 weeks old — and then rushed to the NICU — the Australian maternity and newborn photographer did what came naturally to her: She took out her camera and documented what was happening, in order to process the experience and the intense mix of emotions surrounding it.
“Documenting Van’s milestones and struggles taught me to accept and celebrate his journey for ALL that it is,” Warden tells Babble.
Having a premature baby in the NICU really is a whirlwind of emotions. On the one hand, you’re meeting your precious baby for the first time, and falling in love. But at the same time, you’re also dealing with the constant fear that your vulnerable baby may not survive the experience. You want so desperately to hold them and make it all better, but there are often restrictions on how much it’s medically advisable to hold or touch your baby.
On top of all that, you often have to wait weeks or months to even take your baby home, so you’re balancing your home/work life along with constant visits to the NICU.
It can be an emotional rollercoaster of emotions, to say the least. And Warden knows that all too well. In a recent post on her blog, Warden shares her beautiful, but turbulent story of the month and a half that Van was in the NICU, along with the stunning photos she took to document the experience.
Van, who is Warden’s second child, was born in late May of this year at just 31 week and 5 days. Warden had been in preterm labor since she was 26 weeks pregnant, and knew that her son was likely to arrive early and need intensive medical attention.
Still, nothing can really prepare a mother’s heart for what it is like to see your child rushed off to the NICU, intubated, and struggling to take each breath.
On her blog, Warden describes the moment she prepared to finally see Van after he was whisked away to the NICU within minutes after birth.
“I was overwhelmingly nervous when the time came to see Van,” writes Warden. “I fussed around unpacking and repacking my things, took a long shower and was shaky as hell as I tried to pull myself together.”
And yet, Warden describes that moment as “really beautiful” — and her photographs of her first glimpses of her son mirror the beauty that Warden saw even among the stress and struggle.
“I was just so relieved that he had made it here safely that I [looked] past all the distracting monitors and machines attached to his tiny frame and [just saw] this little 1.7kg bundle of perfection,” writes Warden.
Warden also documents the first times she and her husband were able to have skin-to-skin with sweet little Van. Those photographs are among the most evocative in the series. And Warden’s description of the experience is equally moving and incredible.
“It was quite the cocktail of emotions when I held Van for the first time, skin-to-skin,” Warden continues, “I could hear and feel the bubbles from the CPAP against my chest as the air entered and opened up his little lungs; a subtle reminder that my boy had more growing to do and was not yet strong enough to get by in this world without medical assistance.”
But soon after this moment came one of the most heartbreaking aspects of having a baby in the NICU — having to say goodbye. After Warden’s own post-birth stay at the hospital, it was time for her to leave baby Van and return home. Warden says that as much as she knew she needed to go (she knew her older daughter Lennon needed her too during this tough time), it “ripped her heart out” when she had to leave baby Van.
“My daughter was missing her mummy and the guilt followed me everywhere,” writes Warden. “When I was at the hospital I was missing Lennon, when I was at home I was missing Van. It goes against all your natural instincts to leave your baby behind in a hospital and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”
Next followed weeks of dividing her time between the NICU and her home. And while Warden and her husband were able to practice skin-to-skin with Van about once a day at first, they had to take turns doing so because only one skin-to-skin contact per day was allowed. Still, she and her husband savored those moments, and Warden captured them in more gorgeous photos.
Warden also brought her daughter Lennon to meet Van, which she described as a transformative moment.
“One of the ultimate special moments was when Lennon met her new baby brother, I’ll never forget it,” Warden recalls. “She smooched every inch of that humidicrib and gave it her all to try and hug him through it. Nearly 3 months on and she’s still totally smitten, always invading his personal space and smothering him in affection.”
Oh goodness, I don’t think it gets any sweeter than that.
All of that affection seemed to rub off on Van, who continued to grow and thrive in the NICU, and even began breastfeeding well. The family was prepared to take him home soon, until one day when Van’s health took a turn for the worse, and he began to require oxygen again.
Luckily, it was a brief scare, but Warden still describes it as one of the darker moments of that time.
“Everything was going smoothly and home time was in reach, until from from no where Van took a turn and required oxygen for a few days,” Warden shares. “A relatively small hiccup, but it was a hard one to mentally cope with when we’d built our hopes up so high to be bringing him home.”
But even after that was over, and Warden and her family brought Van home for the first time, they had to endure one final scare before they could take their baby boy home for good. Six days after he was home, Van contracted RSV, which is very serious business for a preemie baby, and the poor little guy was rushed back to the hospital again, tube fed, and put on oxygen.
This was perhaps Warden’s lowest point, because she was so relieved to finally have him home, and this scare really shattered her.
“Never in my life have I felt so helpless,” she writes. “He needed to be in his mumma’s arms more then ever and all I could do was watch on next to his crib as he rode out the worst of it in isolation.”
Thankfully Van recovered well, and now is safely and very happily home (I mean, just look at that adorable face!). In fact, the whole family is overjoyed to all be together in one place, settling in and getting to know each other.
Now that the experience is behind her, Warden expresses how very grateful she is to her friends and family as well as the fabulous and nurturing staff that cared for Van all those weeks.
But in addition to generously sharing her story and her intimate, breathing-taking photos, Warden has some strong words of wisdom to other moms who are going through a similar experience right now.
“Don’t feel like you need to do it all,” she shares with Babble. “Accept help from others and be specific in what you need help with. The less you have to worry about, the more time you have to focus on what’s important.”