THE neonatal unit is one of the quietest places in a hospital, caring for premature babies until they are well enough to go home.

There are no early morning wake-up calls here, no bright lights or loud voices as its occupants periodically wake and fall asleep in their heated incubators.

The smallest babies can be born from 23 weeks of gestation and weigh as little as a loaf of bread.

The reason for ‘pre-terms’ is still unclear and can be due to a number of factors, including infection.

The unit operate a minimal handling policy for the first 48-72 hours, to reduce the risk of passing on infections.

The babies’ breathing, heartbeat and fluid intake are all carefully monitored around the clock.

Nilakshi Joshi, 37, from Northolt, one of the senior nurses on Hillingdon Hospital's neonatal unit, has a very personal reason for working there.

She said: “I was nine years old when two of my siblings died within 48 hours of birth, due to diabetic complications.

“I have been protective of babies ever since. I knew I wanted to specialise in neo-natal care as soon as I chose a career in nursing.”

She says life expectancy has hugely increased in her 13 years, due to improvements in technology.

“These babies are born with a huge disadvantage, so the team put everything we can into helping them,” she added. “They are fighters, so we fight for them.”

The UK has the highest rate of premature births in Europe, with around one in eight babies born prematurely.

Nearly 80 per cent of those weighing as little as 2lb 2oz are now expected to live, compared with 20 per cent in 1980 Hillingdon is a level two unit, meaning it can look after babies born from 27 weeks of gestation.

It can also stabilise younger babies before transporting them to a level three unit, like Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, which Is part of the local neo-natal care network. Babies will often come back to Hillingdon once they are stronger before finally making the trip home.

The unit offers relaxed visiting times, allowing parents to see their child at any time of the day or night. Babies can stay in the unit from a day to several months.

A wall of thank-you cards and photos of older healthier babies is testament to parents’ gratitude, as is the unit’s Families and Friends test, which has a 93% satisfaction rating.

At the end of another 12-hour shift and Nilakshi is handing over to a senior colleague before driving home for a well-earned rest.

Does she have trouble relaxing? “No, I sleep like a baby,” she says.