Nearly one in four mothers are left alone during childbirth, despite NHS policy stating that a doctor or midwife should be present to provide advice, reassurance and practical help.
The worrying statistic was included in research published by the Care Quality Commission, the NHS care watchdog. Although the report found that mothers are generally satisfied with how they are looked after when they give birth in England.
However, childbirth campaigners say that overdue improvements in the quality of maternity services should not disguise the fact that many women are enduring labour alone.
Elizabeth Duff, senior policy adviser at the NCT, a parenting charity, said it was pleasing that the number of women left on their own during labour had fallen from 26% in 2015 but added: “It is still of great concern that 23% of women are left alone during the birth of their baby, which can be a very frightening and dangerous experience.
“This reinforces the fact that staffing levels are low and midwives are being stretched to the limit, so we continue to call on the government to address this midwife shortage.”
NHS policy since 2010 has been that all women should always have a midwife or doctor with them during labour and birth to provide advice, reassurance and practical help. But shortages of midwives make that ambition difficult to fulfil. Midwives can end up looking after several women giving birth simultaneously, said Duff.
NCT research last year found that half of all births involve at least one “red flag” event, in which a lapse in safety could threaten the health of the baby, mother or both. Half of the medical negligence claims lodged against NHS trusts every year involve childbirth, with the lifetime care costs of a brain-damaged baby now often reaching £20m.
Earlier this year, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a Government pledge to bring forward to 2025 the target of halving the numbers of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths and severe birth-related brain injuries by 2035. The target was initially set in 2015 amid concern that while there had been progress on reducing cases, the improvement had not been as fast as some western countries.
In June, the Each Baby Counts inquiry, conducted by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, found that three-quarters of babies who die or are brain damaged during childbirth in the UK could be saved with better medical care.
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