Supplied image: Yonela Nxasana with her daughter Olwenene
The first time Yonela Nxasana lucidly saw her newborn baby girl, tubes connected around her tiny face, going into her even tinier nose and her heart sank.

“She was so tiny the size of my palm, and all I could think was, ‘it wasn’t supposed to happen this way this isn’t how I pictured it”, the 29-year-old mother recounted.

She asked the nurses in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care (NICU) ward to close the curtain around her daughter’s incubator, so that she could do the only thing she could think of at that moment, which was to pray.

Olwenene - her daughter - was born eight weeks too soon, and classified premature. “I just prayed and asked God to give me strength because from then on, I was going to need strength... to be strong for her," she said.

Today is World Prematurity Day, which highlights the serious health risks of being born too soon, and its implications to the overall health of premature babies.

Prematurity is one of the leading causes of death worldwide in children under five.

In South Africa, 15% of all births - one in seven babies - are born prematurely.

Globally, around 15 million babies (12% of all births) are born pre-term and one million die due to complications and a lack of proper healthcare.

With a history of high blood pressure prior to her pregnancy, Nxasana was diligent with her doctor and clinic visits to ensure her pregnancy was progressing smoothly.

But at 30 weeks', things started to go awry.

What started as a week off work to better manage her blood pressure at home, resulted in her admission to hospital.

Nxasana eventually had to have an emergency caesarean to save her child’s life after doctors told her her baby was struggling due to her escalating blood pressure.

“Leaving her in the hospital was the hardest moment of all.

"My older sister took me into her home and would make me breakfast in bed, hoping to ease me into recovery, but my main focus was walking and getting stronger, so that I could go and see my baby.

"I was at the NICU from early morning until midnight every night for a month”, she said.

Unfortunately, the baby’s father wasn’t as supportive and Nxasana had to rely on her family for emotional, physical and spiritual support.

“The NICU is strictly only for parents, but I negotiated with the unit’s manager to allow my mother in. I was praying everyday for my baby's health and life Mostly, I would be there alone and I would just read to my daughter or sing and pray. It was such an emotional time," Nxasana added.

Another mother who battled with her premature baby is Masego Seemela, who also had high blood pressure during her pregnancy.

Having cancelled her medical aid last year, she and her long-time boyfriend had planned to pay a lump sum to a private birthing clinic and for her doctor's consultations out of their own pocket.

But when she approached seven months, she developed a bad cough and severe flu.

Her baby was due in July,but due to her illness and elevated blood pressure, her doctor had her admitted two months before her due date.

Because she had no medical aid, she was forced to go to a public hospital.

“The worst thing about having high blood pressure is that you can’t regulate it yourself.

"People around me would say, ‘don’t stress’, thinking that’s what was causing it, but I would tell them I’m not stressed. So, I had to come to terms with where and how I would be giving birth," Seemela said.

Despite being booked to go into theatre at 4pm on the day of her C-sectiion, Seemela was wheeled in for the surgery only at 9pm, due to the pressure in the public hospital.

Looking back now, she said: “To be honest, the service was really good from the staff, but they lacked resources and the building was run down. They’re just short of things.”

Her daughter, Maphala Botlhale Seemela, was born weighing 1.59kg and admitted to the NICU.

“The sad thing was being in a ward with other women whose newborn babies were with them, but mine wasn’t with me”

Seemela was discharged a few days later, but would visit her daughter daily until she was ready for kangaroo care, which involved placing her baby skin-to-skin on her chest for several hours a day.

Both women had sound advice for parents in a similar situation.

Supplied image: Masego Seemela and her daughter Maphala

Nxasana emphasised the importance of being physically there for your baby.

“Most parents who have pre-term babies in a private hospital can relax because there is 24-hour nursing care, but don’t, your child needs you and can sense your presence and love.

"Also, I’d like to say there is light at the end of the tunnel."

Olwenene is now just over a year, healthy and learning to walk and weighs 11kg, while Maphala is a growing and healthy five-month old, who loves her mother’s breast milk.

Lynne Bluff, a registered nurse and midwife, said moms should be aware of information relating to medical conditions, which could result in pre-term labour and educate themselves on the signs of early labour.

It was crucial to consult a midwife or obstetrician as in many instances pre-term labour can be halted, she added.

Bluff said: “It is important to realise that in the majority of premature births, there is nothing you can do to prevent it."

Epectant moms should take care of themselves during pregnancy by:

- Have regular antenatal care at the recommended stages of gestation.

- Manage weight gain. The average weight gain over the course of a pregnancy is about 12kg.

- Infected gums produce prostaglandins, the same hormones that initiate labour. Expectant mums should visit a dentist at least once during pregnancy, and brush teeth twice a day and floss”.