Aussie mum's parental leave plea after premature son's 'traumatic' birth

Little Archie spent the first 21 weeks of his life in hospital with his mum by his side despite only having limited leave available to her.

An Aussie mum is pleading for change after being "blindsided" by the premature birth of her son, forcing her to use all 18 weeks of parental leave and her annual leave from her employer "just to get through".

Katherine Averill had experienced a "healthy" pregnancy up until May 15 of last year, when — at 28 weeks and 4 days along — she suddenly went into labour "completely out of the blue", and months ahead of her August 3 due date.

Just 30 minutes later, Katherine was rushed into surgery for an emergency Caesarean. Her son, Archie, weighed just over a kilo. It was the "best and worst" night of his parents' lives.

"Your introduction to motherhood is fear," she told Yahoo News Australia, describing the pain of becoming a mum to a premature baby.

Archie would remain in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for 97 days and in hospital for 21 weeks, having three surgeries during this time — one life-saving.

Archie, born at just 28 weeks and 4 days, pictured lying on his mum Katherine in hospital.
Archie, born at just 28 weeks and 4 days, remained in hospital for 21 weeks. Source: Supplied

Katherine spent at least 15 hours each day during that time by Archie's side and opened up about how, despite being excited she was to see him each day, she was filled with dread not knowing what the day would hold for her "beautiful boy".

Mental and financial load on parents of premature babies

Katherine recalls just how difficult the 21 weeks in hospital were, with the financial burden weighing heavily on their family during a time of trauma and fear.

"It was a very stressful time, both mentally and financially, because not only are you off work, but you know, it's expensive," she shared. "There's so many additional costs being a parent of a premature baby, it doesn't stop when you get home — with all of the assessments and specialist appointments."

The Sydney mum used all her 18 weeks of parental leave, which was the standard at the time but has now been raised to 20 weeks. After that, she used up her annual leave from her employer "just to get through" and to make sure she was with Archie every single day.

"I had to be there with Archie as many hours as I could afford every day to do skin to skin contact — because they're out of the womb so early they need [it]," she said. "We are medically needed to be in hospital with our babies".

Archie is now a happy, thriving 14-month-old, but is not able to go into daycare because of his prematurity. This has meant that Katherine has still not returned to work.

Left image is of Archie soon after he was born premature in hospital. Right image is of him now, healthy and 14-months-old.
Archie is now a thriving 14-month-old boy but is still unable to go to daycare. Source: Supplied

Public petition for better parental leave entitlements

Katherine is sharing her story in support of a public petition that was launched on Monday calling for more paid leave entitlements for parents who burn through their leave entitlement before their baby even leaves the hospital.

"Parental leave is something that I longed for. Being able to have a farewell at work, to have a baby shower, to bring my son home and exist in this little bubble..." Katherine says.

Associate Professor from Centre of Research Excellence for Newborn Medicine at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Alicia Spittle, says that current parental leave legislation does not take into account the time parents of premature or sick babies may spend in hospital.

"As a result, parents are often forced to return to work while their baby is still in hospital, or face leave without pay or even resignation," she says. "This places a massive financial burden on families who are already in a traumatic and overwhelming situation."

Almost half of premature babies will face between one and four months in the hospital after birth and 48,000 babies are born annually requiring admission to a NICU or Special Care Nursery (SCN).

Proposed changes to be made

Under current legislation, eligible parents who are the primary carer of a newborn receive up to 20 weeks' paid parental leave at the national minimum wage. Eligible working dads and partners (including same-sex partners) receive two weeks' leave paid at the national minimum wage.

Miracle Babies Foundation argue that, for the parents of premature and sick babies, this legislation doesn’t consider the needs of parents with babies who arrive earlier than expected and spend their first weeks or months of life in a NICU or SCN, before they are able to safely come home.

They are proposing the below changes to parental leave entitlements for families who have a baby hospitalised for two weeks or more:

  • That primary carers receive one week of extra parental leave pay for every week a baby is in hospital beyond two weeks, with a maximum of 14 weeks extra pay, and

  • Recommend, for fathers and partners, an additional two weeks of extra dad and partner pay.

For more information on the petition, click here.

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