Each year in the United Kingdom 80,000 babies receive specialist NHS neonatal care, with approximately a quarter spending a prolonged period of time in hospital. Parents of premature babies often describe their hospital journey as a physical and emotional rollercoaster. I have been on this rollercoaster and write about my experiences as part of our Smallest Things campaign. But there is also a very real cost to having a premature baby.
Earlier this year, Bliss reported on the added financial burden placed on parents of sick or premature babies. Be it travel, parking, accommodation, extra childcare or meals, the cost soon adds up, with figures suggesting that parents spend on average an extra £2,256 over the course of their hospital stay. Through my own story and the Smallest Things we are calling on UK government to extend statutory maternity leave and statutory maternity pay for parents of babies born prematurely.
A newborn needing prolonged hospital care is unlike any other childhood illnesses requiring hospitalisation. There is virtually no financial support for parents of premature or sick babies. Being in hospital you cannot apply for the disability living allowance and the flexibility of taking paid, unpaid or sick leave from work is not possible as maternity leave begins automatically the day after birth, in many cases weeks or months before a baby comes home.
The interruption of pregnancy and the uncertainty and loss of time preparing for your new arrival all add to the anxiety of life in neonatal care. The cost of daily hospital visits and concern over whether you can afford to be with your baby should not add to this difficult time. Getting over the initial shock parents describe how the hope of bringing their baby home can turn to anger and sadness that their time at home together will also be cut short. In context, more than a quarter of my maternity leave was spent visiting my baby in hospital and according to Bliss, like me, 60 per cent of mothers felt their maternity leave was too short.
In addition, premature babies are babies for longer. Born early they develop according to their ‘corrected’ age, calculated according to their due date rather than their birth date. This sees parents returning to work when their babies are still physically and emotionally less developed in comparison to babies born on or near their due date. This can be a worrying time for parents, particularly when a baby is still small or has ongoing medical concerns.
Studies also confirm that the risk of depression and anxiety is higher for mothers who have spent time in neonatal care, with many reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The added financial burden of a long hospital stay or limited time to bond with your baby at home can only exacerbate the risk. Extending statutory maternity leave and pay would enable mothers to have the emotional and financial support needed at a time of great trauma and stress, in turn leading to better postnatal health, a more positive return to work and better outcomes for baby’s development.
Is change is possible? YES, and the precedent has already been set. European countries such as Finland, Iceland and Croatia are all offering extended leave for parents of premature or sick babies. If you agree that mothers of babies born too soon should have more time, please sign and share our petition – SIGN NOW!