Thank you for being a friend – buddying scheme to support parents of critically ill newborns in Sunderland

Members of the Neo-Natal Buddy Group at Sunderland Children's centre.

Members of the Neo-Natal Buddy Group at Sunderland Children's centre.

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IT’S a heartbreaking moment for any new parent.

After nine months of waiting, their baby is born critically ill.

Mums and dads spend months at their baby’s bedside as they grow stronger under the care of the dedicated neonatal team at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

Now one nurse is helping parents to help each other.

Staff nurse Hayley Agnew set up the Sunderland Buddies Group which has proved a lifeline of support for members.

Donna Pickering, 26, from Fulwell, is one of the parents who attends the group’s meetings every six weeks at The Children’s Centre in Durham Road.

She knows all too well how precious life is after two of her babies died after being born prematurely at 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Daughter Katie was also born prematurely, at 26 weeks weighing just 2lb2oz, but has grown into a happy, healthy toddler despite her traumatic start to life.

“I knew she’d come early because I had a history of it,” said Donna.

“I was so scared, but I had been taking steroids through the pregnancy which, I think, helped to make her strong.”

Katie, now two, was in hospital for 11 weeks before Donna was able to take her home.

“It’s amazing what they can do now,” she said. “It’s thanks to all the medicine and care they provide that she’s alive. She’s absolutely brilliant now and has no health problems.

“After having to go through two funerals for the other babies, Katie has brought the light back into my life.”

She added: “No one quite knows what it’s like to have a premature baby unless they’ve gone through it themselves, so it’s great to be able to share your experiences with other parents at the group.”

Layton Simon, 14 months, is another example of how babies born so early can go on to lead healthy lives.

He attends the group with mum Sonia Morton from Marsden.

The 41-year-old mum of two, who gave birth to her second son 27 weeks into pregnancy, said: “I’d gone down to Manchester to see a Westlife concert when I went into a labour.

“I was really panicking, especially as I was away from home. He was in hospital for three months all together after being transferred to the RVI. I can’t remember those first few months of his life, they were so worrying.”

Sonia was one of the first mums to attend the group when it started just under a year ago.

“It’s been a great support,” she said. “It really helps to speak to someone who knows exactly what you’ve gone through.”

Hayley said: “The group is for parents of premature or sick babies. My colleagues at the hospital do a fantastic job, but as nurses we haven’t gone through what these parents have, which is why I came up with the idea of starting the group.

“It’s lovely to see the kids grow and it gives hope to parents who’ve just had a premature baby.”

l For more information on the Sunderland Buddies Group email sunderlandbuddies@hotmail.co.uk.