Demi Stokes is sharing her story to highlight premature births (Pampers/PA)
17 November 2022

Lioness Demi Stokes on ‘really scary’ preeclampsia during son’s premature birth

17 November 2022

Lioness Demi Stokes embodies strength and fitness as a professional footballer – but she was once a tiny 3lb baby having been born 10 weeks early.

“I was actually born down the toilet,” reveals the Manchester City and England star, 30. “So it was a bit a crazy entrance into the world.”

Like thousands of babies born prematurely every year in the UK, Stokes spent time on a neonatal unit before going home. It’s only since becoming a parent herself that it’s really sunk in how anxious a time that must have been for her own mum.

Stokes and her partner Katie Harrington have a six-month-old son, Harlen, who was born six weeks early weighing 5lbs and needed to spend a week in hospital after being born via emergency caesarean.

“We’ve talked about it more the older I’ve got,” says Stokes. “And being a mum myself now, I’m like – I can’t imagine what my mum was feeling [back then].

“But it’s interesting because when I do speak to my mum about it, she doesn’t ever say, ‘Oh, it was horrendous’ and this and that. I feel like she must have blocked it out. She went through it with me, and I have two other siblings who were also premature. My younger brother, who was 2lbs, and another brother who was 3lbs.

“But obviously we’re all grown up, we’re all healthy – and everyone’s experience isn’t the same and we’ve experienced that side as well, we’ve had family members who unfortunately lost babies.”

The England striker has partnered with Pampers for their World Prematurity Day (November 17) campaign. This year, as well as continuing with their support for long-standing UK charity partner Bliss (a charity for babies born premature and sick), the brand will also support UNICEF to help deliver better access to services for premature babies and their families globally. They’re also donating their specially designed Pampers Preemie Protection nappies to neonatal units across the UK, as well as to parents of preterm babies through ASDA pharmacies.

After surveying affected families, 63% of parents said not being able to touch or hold their baby affects early bonding experiences. Something as simple as being able to change their nappy can be incredibly meaningful – which Stokes got to chat to parents about during a visit to Birmingham Women’s Hospital recently, where she was born three decades ago.

“It was such an amazing experience,” she says. “I was able to interact with families and see the amazing work they do at the hospital. It was really nice to take Harlen and Katie too, and show Katie what really goes on behind the scenes.”

For Stokes, getting involved in the campaign is about also raising awareness, and opening up conversations around what experiencing a premature or difficult birth can be like for those going through it.

“I think as a society, we’re quite taboo with being vulnerable and letting our emotions out. And I think we probably need to do that more,” she says. “It’s important we talk about it. This is something that’s really close to me and really close to our hearts as a family, and that’s why I wanted to share my story. It’s been really good to learn a lot on the way as well.”

She can relate to how bringing baby home can be an anxious time too.

“You’ve got this little human, who’s tiny, and you think, ‘Ah, they’re out of the woods, they’re fine’, but then you get home and go, ‘What do I do?’ Even when your baby’s healthy, it’s overwhelming,” she reflects. “So sharing stories can be really powerful.”

Another part of Stokes’ and Harrington’s story is preeclampsia – which Harrington, who carried Harlen, became seriously unwell with.

It’s not entirely clear what causes the condition, but it’s associated with the blood vessels supplying the placenta. Preeclampsia can often be mild and will only need to be monitored, although symptoms can occur including severe headache, vomiting, pain below the ribs and sudden swelling of the face, hands and feet. In more rare cases it can become very serious, with a risk of complications for the mother.

Stokes says the situation “literally went from zero to 100” in their case.

“And it was really scary, to be fair. I remember thinking, ‘Demi, just have a poker face’ – because if I crumble, I’m not going to help Katie. And I remember there was about 10 doctors and nurses and they were all giving their opinions, and it was like: ‘Right Demi, you’ve got to stay logical because you’ve got to bring Katie back down, and you’ve got to keep yourself here’.

“I knew it was serious when the doctors were saying Katie is the concern and not the baby. I was like, wow,” Stokes recalls. “So then logically I think, ‘Right, well I need Katie here’, and worst case, we go again, we try again.”

She believes the skills she’s learned as a footballer, in terms of mental focus and staying calm under pressure, definitely helped in the moment. “But inside, I was panicking and I was worried, definitely,” she shares. “I think not until after, when she came home, then I was like, ‘You were really poorly, you were really unwell’.”

Thankfully, they’re both doing well now – and despite being “a little early”, Harlen’s “really filled out and thriving”, Stokes adds.

“He’s healthy, he’s happy, that’s the main thing,” she says. “That’s the thing as well – I think there is this taboo of when you’re premature, you have all these complications and don’t go on to do as well in life and have struggles. But with the right support, you can be whatever you want.

“I probably was quite small when I started playing football, but it just meant I had to work a little bit harder. And actually, once I did fill out, I probably overtook the bigger guys,” reflects Stokes, who joined a Sunderland’s youth academy at age eight and by 16 was playing in the first team.

“So, you have plenty of time on your side. I think that’s what I’d say to other parents now – don’t worry if they’re small and if they might be a bit late to develop, because we catch up. We need to let little premmie babies know they are strong and they’ve very robust.”

Demi Stokes is supporting the #PampersForPreemies campaign, which is dedicated to touching the lives of premature babies both near and far with the help of Bliss and UNICEF.

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