Parents aren't visitors

A neonatal experience is always extremely difficult, and often traumatic. There can be many barriers which prevent parents from being with their baby - but the current COVID-19 pandemic is making these barriers even harder to overcome. We need Governments across the UK to take action now.

Parents are not visitors. Babies have the very best long-term developmental outcomes if their parents are able to be partners in delivering their baby's care on the neonatal unit.

We have published research showing that excluding parents from their baby’s care is still widespread practice and that this is having a detrimental impact on babies and their families. We found:

  • Nearly three-quarters of parents (72%) said they could not parent together also said their mental health was negatively affected.
  • Parents were 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.
  • Many NHS Trusts have not yet relaxed restrictions for parents, regardless of their efforts to implement the three actions outlined in the Supporting pregnant women using maternity services during the coronavirus pandemic: actions for NHS providers guidance.
  • Less than one third of units were facilitating full access for both parents, ensuring they could be with their baby, together, whenever they wanted.

We’re calling on the government to publish a National Neonatal Roadmap setting out how neonatal units will return to usual family access, so that parent and sibling access restrictions do not continue beyond the final date for the removal of all legal limits on social contact in the rest of society.

Email your MP using the link below to ask them to act.

What is the issue?

Bliss has published research showing that excluding parents from their baby’s care is still widespread practice and that this is having a detrimental impact on babies and their families. Our findings show that many NHS Trusts have not yet relaxed restrictions for parents, regardless of their efforts to implement the three actions outlined in the Supporting pregnant women using maternity services during the coronavirus pandemic: actions for NHS providers guidance.

In a survey of 510 parents, respondents told us that they were not able to be with their baby when they needed to be. This is supported in the results of our survey of 70 NHS Trusts (March 2021) where less than one third of units were facilitating full access for both parents, ensuring they could be with their baby, together, whenever they wanted.

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. This has had a detrimental impact on many parents:

  • Nearly three-quarters of parents (72%) who said they could not parent together also said their mental health was negatively affected.
  • Parents were 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.

What do we want to happen?

National direction on this issue is urgently required, as the lack of national leadership is exacerbating the situation for units. Respondents told us that they were waiting for government or national guidance to review their policies. This presents a clear opportunity for the Government to support parents and staff by ensuring that neonatal care in England returns to the family centred approach needed as soon as possible.

NHS England and the Department for Health must publish a National Neonatal Roadmap setting out how neonatal units will return to usual family access, which must:

  • Provide Trusts and Health Boards a clear timetable to facilitate both parents, or one parent and a nominated support person, to have unlimited 24-hour access to their baby, together on neonatal units as soon as possible.
  • Include details for siblings to return to neonatal units to support whole-family care and bonding, as well as facilitate better access for parents with other children at home.
  • Include details for expected return of wider family (excluding support persons) and visitors to neonatal settings.
  • Mandate that parent and sibling access restrictions do not continue beyond the final date, as set out by each Government, for the removal of all legal limits on social contact.

Why is this best for babies?

Evidence is clear that babies have the very best outcomes when their parents are able to be partners in delivering their baby's care. Research has shown babies cared for in this way have increased weight gain and improved breastfeeding rates, and some studies have even shown that babies may go home from hospital earlier.

Parents are not visitors. They are a key part of their baby's care team. Not only does this have benefits for babies, but the whole family. This involvement has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in parents, and improve bonding and attachment.

This is absolutely vital as parents whose baby has had a neonatal experience are more likely to have negative mental health outcomes, compared to parents whose babies are born at term and healthy.