Having a new baby is one of the most wonderful experiences in many people’s lives, but if that baby is born prematurely and spends its first few weeks inside an incubator fighting for its life the stress and trauma can be overwhelming for mums and dads.
The law as it now stands assumes that babies are born at full term and healthy. The flexibility that parents of premature babies need simply isn’t there. On top of anxiety over their tiny baby’s fragile health, unexpected costs can push parents into debt, stress can lead to mental illness, and some parents lose their jobs because of the additional time they have to take off work because of their child’s illnesses which can persist for years.
The last Labour government demanded better care, including the provision of accommodation for parents whose baby has to spend time in intensive care. But last year, the charity Bliss found that only five out of 24 intensive care units met minimum standards. When I asked the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to explain the situation, I was told that his department no longer collects the information.
This government hasn’t shown that they care enough about premature babies and their families. Over two thirds of neonatal units have a shortage of nurses, 70 per cent are caring for more babies than is considered safe, and four in ten have no trained mental health worker on site to help struggling parents. Hundreds of premature babies are sent to other hospitals because the unit they were born in was full. Under the Tories, neonatal services are at breaking point.
Mothers are entitled to 52 weeks’ maternity leave with two weeks available to dads. This is the same whether your child is born healthy or premature.
There’s no recognition of the different needs of a baby who spends its first few months of life in an incubator. They are not able to bond physically or emotionally with parents who are not allowed to hold them, an instinct that is not only natural but is vital to the baby’s healthy development. By the time they are well enough to go home, months of maternity leave may already have been used up leaving these exceptionally vulnerable babies at a further disadvantage.
Post-natal depression affects two in every five mothers of premature babies, while their children are more likely to suffer from health complications or learning difficulties. Premature babies develop more slowly so parents who return to work after six months will do so knowing their baby may have only reached the development stage of a three month old.
Parents of premature babies need all the help we can give them, not the additional stress that many are placed under. Catriona Ogilvy, from Croydon, set up a campaign called The Smallest Things to press for change after her two sons were born prematurely. She has done an incredible job raising the profile of this issue with her online petition, which has now well over 100,000 signatures.
This week, I’ll be calling in parliament for a change in the law to extend maternity and paternity leave for parents of premature babies. The bill has support from MPs across all political parties.
It’s time for the government to listen and back this change that will mean so much to some of our society’s most vulnerable babies and their families.
Steve Reed is MP for Croydon North and shadow minister for civil society. Catriona’s petition calling for extended leave for parents of premature babies can be signed online at www.change.org