Sick babies' safety at risk from under-resourced neonatal units

30th October 2015

Neonatal services in England are so under-resourced that the lives of premature and sick babies are being put at risk, says new research.

Hard working staff at the units that look after premature babies and sick babies in the first few weeks of life are being stretched to breaking point, putting their safety and survival at risk and affecting their long-term development, says the research from baby care charity Bliss.

The charity says its five yearly survey reveals a system in trouble with a significant shortage of nurses, doctors and other professionals that are needed to deliver safe and high-quality care to premature and sick babies.

Around 77,000 babies in England each year need specialist support to help them survive - 1 in 9 of all births.

Its key findings are:

  • 64 per cent of units do not have enough nurses, and two thirds do not have enough doctors to meet national standards. This is largely due to a severe lack of funding, which accounts for three quarters of those units falling short of nurses and half of those units not having enough doctors.
  • The government’s national standards recommend that it is not safe for units to be running at higher than 80 per cent occupancy on average, but over two thirds of neonatal intensive care units are consistently caring for more babies than this. This puts babies at risk and adds to their families’ stress and worry.
  • at 41 per cent of units, parents do not have access to a trained mental health worker, despite parents of premature and sick babies being at a far greater risk of postnatal depression.
  • One third of units are not able to provide overnight accommodation for parents of critically ill babies or those living many miles from the hospital.

Caroline Davey, the charity's chief executive,said: "The government set out a comprehensive and ambitious vision for neonatal care in 2009. Six years on it is deeply worrying to find that progress has stalled.

It must be awake-up call for policy makers and healthcare commissioners to take urgent action to address these challenges so that in another five years we are able to give every baby born in this country the best possible chance of survival and of reaching their full potential.”

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