Not many people know, if your baby is born prematurely your maternity leaves begins the very next day.
For many mothers this means weeks, often months before they can bring their baby home. For these mothers, maternity leave is spent visiting their baby each day in neonatal intensive care, an uncertain world full of monitors, lines and breathing machines where anxious parents wait beside incubators.
When my son was born at just 30 weeks gestation I simply could not understand how our 8 week roller-coaster journey through neonatal care could be classed as maternity leave. Whilst 'normal' mums discussed sleeping through the night and feeding regimes, as a NICU mum I worried about my baby making it through the night and discussed pumping regimes. I changed micro nappies through incubator port holes, delicately handling stick thin legs through a tangle of wires, would wait days to be able to hold my baby close and left each night empty armed.
With a precedent already been set by other European countries, here are 5 reasons why the UK Government should extend maternity leave for mothers of babies born too soon.
1. Financial - Be it travel, parking, accommodation, extra childcare or meals, the cost of having a premature baby in neonatal care soon adds up. Latest figures suggest that on average parents of premature babies spend an extra £2,256 over the course of their hospital stay. In addition there is little financial support for parents whose babies have been born too soon. For example, you cannot apply for the disability living allowance and the flexibility of taking paid, unpaid or sick leave from work is not possible - maternity leave begins automatically the day after birth. Parents have enough uncertainly, worry and stress, without the added pressure of wondering if they can afford to visit their baby in hospital.
2. Bonding - Mothers of babies born too soon face the agonising journey of leaving hospital without their baby day after day. Any NICU mum will tell you, there is a lot of watching and waiting in neonatal care - waiting for that first precious hold, usually days, sometimes weeks after their baby is born. Then watching and waiting for more holds, a chance to change a nappy through an incubator porthole or an opportunity to hold an NG tube as drops of milk pass through a tube into their baby's tiny tummy. NICU is not an environment conducive to mother and baby bonding. In fact, with the bells and buzzers, tubes and monitors, it is not an environment conducive to becoming a mother at all! It can be months before a baby born prematurely comes home. Months where precious time to bond has been lost and a lost time many mothers morn. Extending maternity leave cannot give back this lost time, but it can give added time; precious time in which to spend at home to bond, benefiting both mum and baby greatly.
3. Development - Premature babies are babies for longer, developing according to their 'corrected' age, (calculated according to their due date) rather than their chronological age. This sees parents of premature babies returning to work when their baby is physically and emotionally less developed than a baby born on their due date. This can be a worrying time for parents, many of whom would not have planned to leave their baby when they were still so small and so dependent, and particularly worrying for parents whose baby, like many, has on going medical concerns and regular hospital appointments.
4. Maternal Mental Health - Studies repeatedly show 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 (PTSD). Reducing the financial burden by extending statutory maternity pay and giving back precious time to bond can help to ease worries and strengthen relationships; but most importantly it would allow time to grieve, to process and to recognise the symptoms of PTSD or depression. In turn, time would be available for mothers to seek and to receive the much needed support.
5. Employment - Mothers often have plans of when and how they will return to work. When a baby is born unexpectedly early these plans for many no longer seem appropriate. For example, a mother who planned to take six months leave will discover that at 6 months her premature baby is only three months old according to their corrected age. Regular hospital follow up appointments, the risk of colds, coughs and flu, on-going medical difficulties and maternal mental health all impact on a mothers ability to return to work. Extending maternity leave would give mothers the time to plan, prepare and for them and their baby to be stronger, enabling them to return to work successfully and in line with their original wishes.
The change.org petition calling upon the UK Government to extend maternity leave for mothers of premature babies now has over 15,000 signatures!