Special baby care 'still failing'

By Michelle Roberts
Health reporter, BBC News

Media caption,
Michaela Southworth: "It's distressing not to be able to hold your sick child because of staffing levels"

Standards for the care of sick babies have not improved in England despite government action, says a charity.

Bliss found services in special care baby units are still being stretched to the limit and not meeting minimum standards.

Fewer than a third of neonatal units have enough nurses to meet minimum standards set by ministers and the NHS.

Its report suggests little has changed since it last carried out an audit of services in 2008.

Bliss says there is still a shortage of 1,150 nurses to care for the 70,000 babies in need of specialist hospital care each year in England, which is no real improvement on the 1,215 figure seen in 2008.

For the whole of the UK the shortfall is believed to be nearly 3,000 nurses.

In England, three quarters of units had to close to new admissions at some point in 2009, most commonly because of a shortage of nurses and doctors, Bliss found.

The charity says the shortages are due to insufficient funding for neonatal nurse posts and problems recruiting and retaining nurses in the speciality.

Breaking point

To improve the situation, the Department of Health last year published minimum standards for neonatal care in England, outlining acceptable staffing levels and the facilities and support that should be available to families.

It said the most ill babies should have one-to-one nursing care, and parents with a baby in intensive care should be offered accommodation close by.

Bliss says there is a serious lack of accommodation for parents to stay near their baby, based on its survey of 116 of England's 177 neonatal units.

It also polled more than 300 parents who had recently been through neonatal care about their experiences.

Bliss found 60% of mothers did not have accommodation available for them in or next to the unit.

It estimates an extra 250 parent rooms are needed to meet minimum standards.

Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said she was concerned that services for the sickest babies were being "stretched to breaking point".

"Midwives and neonatal nurses provide a vital service supporting mothers and babies, and more money needs to be invested in neonatal services and staffing to give the most vulnerable babies the best start in life," she said.

Health Minister for England Anne Milton said: "It's clear from this report that there are big challenges to overcome.

"We are determined that people and their babies get the high-quality, safe neonatal services they need.

"Expert guidance from NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) and a valuable Toolkit are available for all those working in this vital area and will help drive improvements and make a real difference to the lives of sick and premature babies who need neonatal care."

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