Bliss research shows devastating impact on bonding with their baby when parents are locked out of neonatal care due to COVID-19 restrictions

Posted on May 20, 2021

New research from Bliss reveals parents are 70% more likely to say they found it difficult to bond with their baby if the neonatal unit where their baby was being cared for had put time limits in place, as part of COVID-19 parent access restrictions.

Bliss has today published the report Locked Out: The Impact of COVID-19 on Neonatal Care, which includes results of a survey of over 500 parents of neonatal babies born between March 2020 to February 2021, as well as findings from a survey of 70 NHS England Trusts. This shows that despite the recent easing of national COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, many parents of neonatal babies continue to face significant challenges in spending time with their premature or sick baby in their critical first days and weeks of life, which is affecting bonding and attachment as well as parental mental health.

Secure attachment and bonding is critical for securing strong parent-infant bonds, which in turn ensure that babies, and their families, have the very best long-term outcomes. These findings are therefore extremely concerning, and urgent action must be taken to return to usual unrestricted parental attendance policies on the neonatal unit as soon as possible.

Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive at Bliss, said: “These findings make for devastating reading. Parents are the most important people in their babies’ lives, yet every day thousands of the smallest and sickest babies across the country are being denied the comfort and support of having their parents at their cot-side whenever they need them.

“Our new report shows that ongoing neonatal access restrictions continue to have a serious impact on families. Parents are unable to be with their baby as much as they need to be and some parents - usually fathers and partners - are unable to spend time with or be involved in their baby’s care at all. The implications of this on family bonding and mental health will be felt long into the future.”

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 12 months, parental access at many units has been restricted. Despite national guidance being released in December 2020 making it clear NHS Trusts should take action to ensure parents could be with their baby on neonatal units, Bliss’ survey found nearly half (46%) were unable to allow parents to attend the unit together, and around 1 in 4 could only offer parents time with their baby as a family in a time-limited slot.

Parents told Bliss that being unable to parent together or only able to attend the unit for a limited period of time was extremely difficult as it left them without the support of their partner at one of the most difficult times in their lives. It meant parents missed out on opportunities to be involved in their baby’s care and decision making, with the parent on the unit being left to pass on updates, including life-changing news. Nearly three-quarter of parents (72%) who said they could not parent together also said their mental health was negatively affected.

Evidence from Bliss’ NHS Trust survey suggests that national guidance is currently failing to result in widespread improvements to parent access and involvement. While the majority of units had taken the three required actions - risk assessment (80%), review of unit layout (86%) and testing (57% offering tests at least some of the time) - many have still been unable to increase access for parents.

Less than a quarter of units (23%) said they had been able to make changes to their layout that allowed them to improve their parent access policy as a result. Moreover, despite the widespread rollout of COVID-19 community testing only 7 of the 25 units who were testing parents regularly were able to facilitate full 24-hour access for both parents, together, at their baby’s cot-side.

Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive at Bliss, added: “The NHS England guidance published in December last year stated clearly that parents should be viewed as partners in their babies’ care, not visitors, and advised NHS providers on the actions they should take to improve parental access. It is therefore extremely disappointing that our research shows that many Trusts have failed to implement this guidance in full and return to unrestricted parent access, even though this is in the best interests of babies in neonatal care.

“Bliss is calling on NHS England and the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Governments to publish a National Roadmap setting out how neonatal units will return to usual family access as a matter of urgency, and to work with NHS Trusts 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.” 

Bryony, from East London, gave birth to her son in July 2020, after which he spent nearly three weeks in NICU.

Bryony said: “Things had become very grave, resulting in several blood transfusions and maximum life support. My husband and I took it in turns to see our son. One day at the hospital, followed by the next day at home looking after our two-year-old daughter. When I was at home, I was fraught with anxiety, and when it was my day to visit our son, I felt completely numb. We lived from phone call to consultant round, it was so frightening not being able to be there together.”