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.
In 2011 I became one of these statistics, giving birth to my first son Samuel at just 30 weeks. I found myself in a state of shock; a mother, but without her baby. A mother on maternity leave, but visiting her tiny baby in hospital each day. I have written about my experiences to raise awareness as part of my Smallest Things campaign.
Over 108,000 people have now signed my petition calling upon the government to extend statutory maternity leave for mothers of premature babies, and today my local MP Steve Reed will introduce a new bill in parliament proposing extended parental leave for families affected by premature birth.
The campaign is beginning to get the publicity it needs!
Born too soon, mothers of premature babies spend weeks, or like me, months of their maternity leave visiting tiny and often critically ill babies in hospital - and this can not be right for parents or baby.
A newborn requiring prolonged hospital care is unlike any other childhood illness needing hospitalisation. Being in hospital for example you cannot apply for the disability living allowance and there is no flexibility to take paid, unpaid or sick leave from work as current legislation dictates maternity leave begins the day after premature birth.
The cost of neonatal care can be crippling for families. A study by the charity Bliss highlighted this financial burden, reporting that families spend on average an extra £2,256 over the course of their hospital stay.
The financial impact is high, but the emotional impact can be greater.
The trauma and uncertainty of neonatal care can not be underestimated. A staggering 40% of mothers experience post-natal depression following neonatal intensive care (compared to 5-10% of mothers delivering without complication at full term), and more than half report anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is clear that mothers need longer to recover, more time to seek the support they need and precious time to finally bond with their baby once home.
Finally, premature babies are babies for longer. Born early they develop according to their 'corrected' age, which is 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.
Extending statutory parental leave would enable families 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 a baby's development.
Is change is possible? YES, and the precedent has already been set. New Zealand currently offers extended leave, as well as other European countries such as Finland, Iceland and Croatia.
Will change happen? YES! With the support of the public and cross party parliamentary support for the bill, change can happen!
The petition can be signed here