My premmie bub - a dad's story

Getting ready for a child is supposed to be one of the most exciting times for an expectant dad.

The air of anticipation, going through the list of names to choose from, reading all the books about how to be a good dad, the parenting classes where you find (as I did) my new Dad's club recruits for Sunday afternoon beer sharing 'war' stories of pooey nappies, sleepless nights and vomit.

Looking back, the toughest thing I had to go through before the birth was figuring out how to do a cloth nappy in the unlikely event we ever ran out of disposables.

Whilst this experience is true for a large number of parents-to-be, there are a small number who go through a very different experience. For one group- parents of premature babies - the birth of a child is equal to a roller-coaster ride that would terrify the most hardened thrill seeker.

Premature babies, or 'premmies' which are born before 37 weeks, account for 8-10% of all births. Their birth-rate and prematurity affects their chances of survival - babies born at 24 weeks have a 58% chance.

Then, those that make it through the first few scary months face an uphill battle with their health every day during their formative years.

Matt, dad of Alex, born at 28 weeks weighing 606 grams, has been there.

Matt and his wife found out at a very early stage that the indicators of Alex's growth were below expected. When the signs didn't improve, they were told in direct terms right up to the birth that the chances of survival weren't good.

At one level, Matt was excited at the prospect of being a dad, but at another he was having to prepare himself for the worst.

"Given the odds we were told, we didn't know what we were preparing for. So we detached ourselves slightly to help us cope, but is it really a good thing to be detached from the pending birth of your child? Surely this should be one of the most attached times in your life!" said Matt.

The barrage of tests and the streams of information took some processing.

Matt says that things were coming so quickly, that as soon as they come to terms with one thing, they had to prepare for the next. They could not afford to explain or keep revisiting things. So they kept their journey to themselves, worked on their poker face and said "everything is fine" when asked abut the pregnancy by their excited family and friends.

When they told their friends of Alex's birth, the typical reaction was instinctively "how fantastic", before they slowly did the math and realised "geez, that's early" and like our family went to the pantry to find something that weighed 600 grams to try and comprehend how tiny that was.

To put Alex's size in perspective, Matt put his wedding ring around Alex's wrist and took a photo.

Not many people had picked up on what was going on with the pregnancy, and Matt's inability to share his story with his friends silently added to the stress of the situation.

Then there was the emotional impact for Matt and his wife.

There was a constant battle against the self-doubt that they were somehow at fault, when in reality this was beyond their control. In this context, being a supportive expectant dad took an extra special meaning. "I personally think this is one of the most crucial roles for a dad during this time: give the mother all the reassurance and support she needs so everyone can focus on the number 1 priority - getting baby healthy", said Matt.

Matt and his wife had been 'on notice' for some weeks, but when the decision was made by doctors to deliver the baby by caesarean, it all happened quickly. A phone call came and, within four hours, they were in the car and on the way to the hospital.

With all the dramas, Matt and his wife hadn't the opportunity to go through the time-honoured tradition of having their friends and relatives tell them what they should be calling their baby.

It wasn't until they were on the way up to the hospital, less than 24 hours before Alex's birth, that they tossed a few names around and came up with one they both liked. Probably not the best scenario to start thinking about names for the first time, so late in the day, but Matt reasons that many couples get the full nine months and still can't sort it out in time.

Alex arrived safely the next day, but there were challenges still to be faced.

He was placed on a ventilator for a day, oxygen for much longer, and Matt has since spent a lot of nights in hospital by his sons side. He did manage to make it out one night for a couple of hours to wet the babies head, some five weeks after Alex was born. Then he went back and did a night shift by his son's bed for a unique style of father-son bonding.

Matt got his first cuddle with Alex when he was just over 2 weeks old.

Seventeen months on, and Alex is making progress in his own good time.

There is still a long way to go and Alex has made a number of trips back to hospital, but Matt, his wife and his boy just get on and deal with it.

"We have a happy, smiling, delightful little boy that we fought so long and hard for. Everything else is irrelevant."