Modern medicine is amazing and the dedicated people in this field are doing an incredible job at saving so many lives. I am not sure from when ‘modern medicine’ is considered to date from but it would seem that it is really recently that premature babies had any chance at survival. I wanted to look at preemie history as I was really curious as to what I could learn. It really shocked me just how recently preemies have been thought of as worth it to put any time, resources and funding into saving their lives.

French doctor Stephane Tarnier is thought to have invented the incubator in an effort to help premature babies. No one seems sure of an exact date of when incubators were started to be used but most agree on it being in the middle of the 19th century. This invention put the French hugely ahead in terms of neonatal care in the world. This is just one vital part of preemie history.

What about the UK?

In 1946 the Maternity Survey revealed that no baby under 2lb 3oz had survived. Those that did often had brain damage and had both mental and physical disabilities. It’s incredible to look at how just how far we have come in less than 100 years! After World War 2 special baby units were set up in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol (Bristol’s unit was set up with a shocking budget of just £100!). The introduction of the NHS brought with it a commitment for neonatal care and they were able to expand these units.

The care back then was a lot more basic with incubators being used and nurses regularly checking on the premature babies. There was emphasis on keeping the babies warm and clean. Parents were asked not to come for fear of spreading germs and if they were allowed into the unit they were not allowed to touch their baby.

Me cuddling my little boy for the first time
Me cuddling my little boy for the first time

Large amounts of oxygen was also administered with the belief that it would encourage lung development. Studies in the 1950’s discovered the damage oxygen could do that lead to retinopathy, which could ultimately lead to blindness. One famous preemie to experience this is Stevie Wonder (click here to read more about famous preemies).

Parents and access to their premature baby

By the 1960’s parents were allowed to look at their babies through large windows, these were known as viewing corridors or viewing galleries. In the 1970’s parents were allowed to hold their babies for short periods of time but were given hats, gloves and gowns and cuddles were strictly time limited.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to not be able to be involved with your baby’s care as you are encouraged to do so in today’s NICU’s. For those that have followed me for a while will know that I wasn’t allowed to touch my son for the first 5 days after he was born.

It was only 18 days after his birth that I got my first cuddle. This wasn’t due to a concern for germs though. This was due to the fact that initially touch seemed to trigger my son’s heart condition so it was to try and see if minimal contact gave his heart a break from SVT episodes. I’m so glad this approach in preemie history has changed.

The 1960’s through to the 1980’s saw new machines being created to help with breathing and to monitor blood gas levels. In the early 1980’s opportunities became available for paediatricians to qualify in specialist areas of neonatal medicine. In the 1990’s steroids being given to mum’s to help with their babies lung development was considered a huge neonatal medical advance. It’s incredible to think that these advances are so recent!

Premature births are increasing

Babies born prematurely is actually on the rise which initially sounds like bad news however survival rates are also increasing. This suggests that doctors have learnt a great deal in the last 50 or so years. Things are being spotted earlier in pregnancies and studies have shown some amazing results for new techniques and medicines to be introduced to the world of the NICU.

Premature baby in an incubator. Photography credit: Hush Naidoo
Premature baby in an incubator. Photography credit: Hush Naidoo

Researching some of this preemie history has been fascinating. Discovering some incredible people that have helped change the way care of premature babies is approached makes me even more grateful that my son was able to survive. It’s struck such a cord with me at how recent these medical advances actually are. Just imagine what it might look in another 50 years time.

This article is an interesting read on a very controversial doctor who showcased premature babies. The money he raised from having them as an attraction went into helping with their care. This doctors’ genuine effort to help won may sceptics round who didn’t approve of his methods which ultimately saved thousands of babies lives. Click here to read more.