The Blog

Mums and Midwives Get Older as Births Keep Booming

Mums are getting older. The number of births to women (and girls) under 20 is down in all four parts of the UK. In Scotland there are now fewer births to teenage mums than in any year since 1952.

Today, in the Houses of Parliament, I will launch the Royal College of Midwives new State of Maternity Services report. It is the first of a new annual publication that sets out how maternity services are faring in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What does it show? Clearly the baby boom that kicked off at the start of the century is continuing apace, although it is possibly tailing off in Scotland. Since the start of the century, births are up 22% in England, 17% in Wales, 15% in Northern Ireland and 12% in Scotland. This continues to put significant pressure on maternity services right across the UK.

A clear shortage of midwives is found not only in every region of England, but in Wales too. Whilst the shortage in Wales is new, the situation in England has dogged maternity care for years. It is not that more midwives are not being recruited - in England, the government is able to claim that there are more NHS midwives than ever before - but the scale of the baby boom outpaces the rise in the number of midwives.

Indeed, the warning lights in England must surely be flashing red. The shortage must be addressed as a matter of real urgency, as must the new shortage in Wales.

Mums are getting older. The number of births to women (and girls) under 20 is down in all four parts of the UK. In Scotland there are now fewer births to teenage mums than in any year since 1952. The reverse is true at the other end, with rocketing numbers of births to older women. In England, for example, there are more births to women aged 40 or over than in any year since 1948.

It is not just mums that are getting older. Midwives are too. In Northern Ireland back in 2002, for example, around a third of midwives were aged 45 or over, now it's well over half. Only Wales bucks the trend, with midwives being on average younger than a few years ago.

So whilst a lack of a midwife shortage in Scotland and Northern Ireland is good news for now, the ageing of the midwifery workforce - especially dramatic on the other side of the Irish Sea - means new midwives must continue to be recruited to replace those who edge ever closer to retirement.

What is the RCM's prescription? Well, first of all we would like to see more women who want and are able to give birth at home or in the midwife-led unit to do so. We want this most importantly because of better outcomes for women, but also these births demand less midwife time, so more births can be handled properly and well even with a smaller workforce.

Secondly we would like to see new maternity support workers guaranteed proper training so that they can safely take on many of the non-midwifery tasks traditionally carried out by a midwife, freeing up the midwife to do what she needs to do.

Lastly, we want guarantees in each part of the UK to maintain the number of training places for student midwives. This will ensure that the workforce continues to grow, in England and Wales in particular, and that it can be replenished where the workforce is ageing, in Scotland and Northern Ireland especially.

Above all we need an end to drift in maternity services, with the same old problems left unchallenged. We need decisive action to deliver the quality of maternity care that surely we all want. And we need to see that action not just in London, but in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast too.