When you can't hold your newborn baby. It's positively heartbreaking.

Touch is so important for newborns.



There’s no sense of night or day in a neonatal unit.  But on the maternity ward where I sleep, two floors above where my newborn baby lies, it is dark. I have just been woken from an exhausted sleep – not by my baby’s cries, but by the high-pitched wail of the telephone by my bed.

I jump up, wincing in pain. My baby is only two days old; she should be lying next to me. She had been wheeled away in her cot from my bedside that afternoon. My husband and two other children were visiting us. He had gone to buy me a coffee when the nurse came and said she had to take my baby down to the neonatal unit, right away.

I stood up to go with her, gathering my older daughters by my side, but the nurse stopped me: children aren’t allowed in the unit. I was torn, desperate to not let my baby out of my sight, but unable to leave my other girls who clutched at my legs. My three year old looked up at me and asked, “Mummy, where are they taking my baby?”  I started crying and let the nurse take the baby away.

I dress quickly, unwilling to wander the corridors of the hospital in my pajamas. I stumble out of the darkness of my room into the glare of the maternity ward. The midwives are chatting around a desk; one asks me if I’m all right. I try to smile, but tears run down my face. “I’m just going to feed the baby,” I manage, before I put my chin to my chest and hurry past them before they can ask me again.

I squirt my hands with the antiseptic gel outside locked doors of the neonatal unit and wait for a nurse to buzz me in. I smile and mutter a greeting to the man waiting next to me, his cheeks still flushed form the cold outside. The door opens, and he shuffles through in his Ugg boots. He carries a small cool bag branded with the name of a beer.

Inside, the unit is bright and noisy, but I immediately recognise the cries of my brand-new daughter. She’s lying in a clear plastic crib, naked apart from the newborn nappy that’s far too big. She’s basking in ultraviolet light from the lamps around her bed, lights that are breaking down the bilirubin that tans her skin and yellows her eyes, and threatens to damage her brain. Her limbs are flailing as she screams, her face a livid red underneath the eye mask fastened around her head like a miniature superhero’s.

Dawn Barker.

Feeding times are the only times I can cuddle her properly, the only times I can hold her tightly and let her know I’m there. I lie her body – still warm from the lamps – across my chest and cover us both with a blanket, reclining back into the chair as she begins to nurse.

With my free hand, I stroke her head. Another mother sits on a chair in the corner with a pump attached to each breast as she fills a bottle with her milk. The man I’d met at the door opens his cool bag and takes out six tiny bottles of milk that his wife had expressed at home for their tiny twins, lying next to each other in an incubator.

I don’t tell him that I had heard his babies cry earlier, the noise muffled by the thick plastic around them. A nurse had come and put her hands through the holes on either side of the incubator, changed their nappies, and tried to make them comfortable, but they had still cried.

I don’t tell him how I wanted to pick them up, and hold them the way I am cradling my own child. I knew that was all they wanted: someone to hold them.

The next day, I sit by my baby’s cot all day and night, leaving her side only to run upstairs to my own room for meals. I watch her as she sleeps under the lights, but when she wakes, I’m there to lay my hand on her chest. I know I’m lucky that I can put my life on hold: she’ll only be in hospital for a few days. I speak to the parents of the twins; their babies have been there for two months. They have other children who need them too, bills to pay. They can’t spend every moment at the hospital.

Touch is one of our most basic instincts. We use it to show love and affection, to sooth and reassure. We rock our crying babies, cuddle our toddlers, ruffle our teenagers’ hair and lean our heads into our husbands’ shoulders. When you can’t hold your baby, it’s heartbreaking.

Now, when I pick up my daughter, hear her cries quieten and feel her body relax, I think about the babies who can only gaze at their parents through the thick plastic of an incubator and whose only physical contact is the grip of a mother’s finger. I make sure I hold my daughter for just a moment longer.

Dr Dawn Barker is a child psychiatrist who grew up in Scotland and now lives in Perth, Western Australia with her husband and three young children. Dawn began writing a book,  Fractured,  shortly after the birth of her first child, which was published this month.