Supporting Parents of Premature Babies – why The NHS should be an Employer with Heart

Medway NHS Foundation Trust was the first hospital in England to recognise the needs of staff whose babies are born premature. Signing up to The Smallest Things ‘Employer with Heart’ charter, the trust now offers extended paid parental leave for staff whose babies are born premature and the news has prompted other hospitals to make similar changes.
As Founder of The Smallest Things I welcomed the news; visiting a fragile baby on a neonatal intensive care unit for weeks, sometimes months, is terrifying and shouldn’t be counted as maternity or paternity leave.
But I also know first hand the difference it would have made to my family if my own NHS employer had granted extended leave following the premature birth of my son seven years ago.
It was a Friday morning when my waters broke with little warning. I was just 30 weeks pregnant, months away for my due date. I was getting ready to leave for work, but in a moment everything had changed. I’d not started antenatal classes, a birth plan was still weeks away and a date for starting maternity hadn’t even been set. I quickly sent my boss a text message to say I was off to the hospital and would speak soon. I hadn’t quite appreciated that “speak soon” would mean informing my HR department of the sudden and early arrival of my baby and that my maternity leave would begin the very next day.
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Nothing was ready. I wasn’t ready. Within a few hours my first son had been born and taken away to the neonatal intensive care unit. “He’s doing well” a nurse told me, but I couldn’t help notice the mechanical way his tiny chest rose and fell as his life support machine pushed oxygen into his lungs. He was covered in lines and attached to machines and monitors. I waited 6 long days to be able to hold him for the first time, but even then the wires and tubes obscured his face and although I was desperate to hold him close I was terrified of hurting him as the monitors began to beep and alarm.
Those sounds stayed with me long after we left neonatal intensive care and in that I am not alone. The Smallest Things ‘After Neonatal Care’ 2017 Report highlighted the extent of mental health difficulties faced by parents of premature babies with a staggering 44% experiencing flashbacks to their time in neonatal intensive care; and yet this time, visiting a baby in neonatal intensive care is classed as maternity leave.
By granting extended paid parental leave employers are giving staff the time they need to recover from the trauma of neonatal intensive care. They are giving premature babies the time they need to grow and develop, reducing the risk of future hospital admissions and giving precious time for mother and baby, finally home, to bond. The benefits to staff and employer are clear and I am looking forward to seeing more and more NHS Trusts and employers signing up to The Smallest Things ‘Employer with Heart’ charter.
For more information about The Smallest Things ‘Employer with Heart’ Charter – see here or contact The Smallest Things directly at smallestthings@yahoo.com
Over 236, 000 people have signed the change.org petition calling upon the UK Government to extend leave for all families affected by premature birth – have you?
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