Supporting West Midlands neonatal families

Caroline Lee-Davey writes about the effect of lockdown on new families.

Despite the recent easing of national COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, many parents of neonatal babies in the West Midlands continue to face significant challenges in being with their premature or sick baby.

Before the pandemic parents typically had unrestricted access to their baby 24 hours a day, with neonatal units encouraging full participation in care giving. But in the past twelve months, parental access at many units has been restricted, with parents often unable to attend the unit together, and some having limits imposed on the length of time they can be with their baby.

Restrictions vary from unit–to–unit and the picture across the UK is extremely varied, with some units continuing to facilitate full parental presence and involvement in their baby’s care. Policies have also changed over time, depending on national COVID-19 restrictions and local infection rates.

As part of this year’s Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, taking place throughout May, Bliss is raising awareness of our new research which shows the devastating impact of these restrictions. Parents whose babies required neonatal care during the COVID-19 pandemic have told us how they struggled to access mental health support and experienced high levels of isolation.

In a Bliss survey of over 500 parents of neonatal babies born in the past twelve months, 92% of parents said they felt isolated and 69% said their mental health has become worse following their neonatal experience.

Parents with a neonatal experience are already at a high risk of experiencing mental health difficulties, and many parents feel they have not been able to get support for their mental health and wellbeing while their baby is in neonatal care.

Parents are the most important people in their baby’s lives and unit access restrictions have had a substantial impact on families. The implications on family bonding and mental health will be felt long into the future.

That’s why Bliss is calling on NHS England to introduce a National Roadmap for a return to usual 24/7 parent access on neonatal units as a matter of urgency, and to work with NHS Trusts in the West Midlands and beyond to implement it consistently across the country. Our smallest and sickest babies need their parents at their side to give them the best chance of survival and quality of life.

Caroline Lee-Davey (pictured) is the Chief Executive of Bliss, the UK’s leading charity for babies born premature or sick.