When baby Holly arrived after only 23 weeks’ gestation, time slowed and every milestone was treasured.

At neonatal care units across the country the smallest leaps and bounds are celebrated.

One millilitre of milk for feeding turns into two, then three, and so on. Incremental weight gains are successes, so is being able to wipe your baby's eyes, change its nappy, and then- incredibly- have the first cuddle.

"It's a big rollercoaster," Sarah Blaney says.

"The hardest part is when they are little, they talk about long term being a few hours. Your friends and family are saying, 'will she survive?' (But) you have to take it hour by hour."

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In March 2013 Sarah and David Blaney were looking forward to meeting their first child, a girl, due in July.

But at 23 weeks Sarah went into labour and baby Holly was born weighing just 640g- slightly bigger than a block of butter.

Babies born too early are at different stages of development and might need help breathing and feeding. Baby Holly at the neonatal unit.
Babies born too early are at different stages of development and might need help breathing and feeding. Baby Holly at the neonatal unit.

The delivery was so fast there was no time to discuss the scary numbers associated with the rare feat.

About 4500 babies are born pre term-before 37 weeks- in New Zealand every year. That's seven per cent of about 60,000 births.

A small number- a few hundred- won't survive and others might have long term disability or suffer medical complications.

In the year Holly arrived she was one of 239 babies in New Zealand born weighing less than 1kg, and one of 30 born at just 23 weeks.

Babies born too early are at different stages of development and might need help breathing, feeding and are at higher risk of suffering medical complications or infection.

Babies who receive help in neonatal units are thought to be more likely to survive. There they are given oxygen to help them breathe and are monitored round the clock in incubators.

In Holly's case she twice had to be resuscitated and needed heart surgery. It was more than five months before she could go home.

November is neonatal awareness month, launched for the first time by The Neonatal Trust, and the Blaneys are speaking about their experience in the hopes of helping others.

They've begun volunteering for the Trust, which supports families and research into improving lives of premature and sick full term babies.

The Blaneys don't dwell on the difficult moments, but instead remember the joy of those tiny developments.

They recall the day Holly's incubator was moved from the front of the hospital room to the back- it signalled precious few seconds didn't need to be saved when nurses attended to her.

"It was hard...she was so small. Her eyes were shut and her skin was translucent and you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know you couldn't hold her," Sarah Blaney says.

At five and a half weeks they got their first cuddle.

"It was pretty mindblowing. You've waited for so long but they're (still) so little. But everything is a step. Hitting 1kg (in weight) is a step, getting to hold them is a step, getting clothes is a step."

"Life changed. I was working as a lawyer and went from writing down everything in my life every six minutes to sitting there staring at an incubator. Obviously life goes on, you've still got bills and houses and things...but I looked at it like a job. I went at the same time every day and had the same routine. Dave would come in at three and do his part.

"She came home on oxygen which was a whole other thing. People struggle to get out of the house with a baby- we had a monitor and an oxygen bottle. Going anywhere you had to change her from a big canister to a small canister, and cart it all around."

Holly is nearly five and ready to go to school. To other parents, the Blaneys say: Take it one day at a time.

"You can't get too wound up about things because it's a long road. It's days and weeks and months and you can't freak out every day. You have to pace yourself through it."

SUPPORT NEONATAL TRUST

November is Neonatal awareness month. Visit neonataltrust.org.nz or Give A Little to donate.

THE STATS

•Every year in New Zealand about 5000 babies receive neonatal care at units in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Christchurch and Dunedin

•Between 4000 and 4500 babies are born pre term every year

•Between 2006 and 2015 less than 300 babies were born at 23 weeks- less than 0.1 per cent of all births which number around 60,000 annually

•The world record for the world's lightest surviving baby went to a US child born in 2004 weighing just 240g

•Among New Zealand's smallest surviving babies are Tia-Jane McVeigh who was born at 23 weeks, weighing 516g, and Hamish MacColl who was born weighing just 440g in 1999 at 27 weeks

•In 2014 of the 318 babies born at less than 28 weeks, about half died within a month of their birth