'I left hospital empty-handed everyday': Bed shortage for parents of sick and premature babies

Even 15 months on, Natasha Schulz-Apps says talking about her experience at hospital makes her cry. Credit: Natasha Schulz-Apps

Words by ITV New Health and Science Producer Rhiannon Hopley

Parents of extremely ill babies are often unable to stay in hospital with them due to a strained demand on facilities, a new study shows.

For every 10 babies who require treatment overnight in hospital, there is only one room available for a parent, according to research by Bliss, a charity for babies born premature and sick.  

Natasha Schulz-Apps' son Teddy was born at 26 weeks and required care in two hospitals, where he stayed for three months. 

While both hospitals had some accommodation available, there were more babies than beds for parents meaning Natasha was able to stay some nights but had to return home on others.

Ms Schulz-Apps told ITV News parents would be removed from the rooms if "someone else who needed it more" came into the ward.

“I was walking out of hospital empty handed everyday. It was horrendous," she said.

"I can’t imagine how bad it must be for a nurse to come up to a mum of a premature and sick baby and say your baby isn’t poorly enough, you need to go home."

Ms Schulz-Apps' son Teddy was born at 26 weeks and required care in two hospitals, where he stayed for three months.  Credit: Natasha Schulz-Apps

A survey by Bliss of 140 neonatal units across England found that 44% do not even have temporary beds - such as reclining armchairs or fold-out beds - next to at least one cot. 

“I was there from 7am to 8pm every day just sitting on an ordinary chair” Ms Schulz-Apps said.

“Staff would say to you ‘mum you’re no good here, you need to go home and sleep’ but you’d go home and you couldn’t sleep. I’d keep ringing the hospital to check he was ok.” 

One night, when Ms Schulz-Apps had been sent home, baby Teddy was taken to have a blood transfusion. 

“It hits you so hard,” she said, “even 15 months on it makes me cry to talk about it.” 

Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive of Bliss, said Ms Schulz-Apps' story is not unusual. She added: “What our research has done has put numbers to what we hear from parents all the time. 

“It’s the most common experience for parents of babies in intensive care that they are either not able to stay at all or cannot stay the whole time.

“Every parent I speak to says one of the most heartbreaking things is leaving a baby at night to go home.” 

Bliss have launched a campaign called 'Families Kept Apart' and have asked the NHS and government to put solutions in place to enable parents to stay with their babies overnight in hospital.  

This includes updating NHS guidelines, new funding to buy furniture such as fold out beds, and a commitment to provide money to allow units to construct additional space for parents to stay. 

Ms Lee-Davey said giving parents the ability to stay with their babies is crucial to them and their children. 

“We know that babies have better physical and developmental outcomes when their parents are by their side as much as possible, and this is equally important for parent mental health and wellbeing, and for parent-infant bonding," she added.

“Stopping the separation of parents from their sick newborns on neonatal units is a necessity.” 

A Department of Health and Social Care Spokesperson said: “We are working hard to ensure all maternity services provide safe and compassionate care, but we recognise there’s still more that needs to be done.

“That’s why we’re investing £165 million per year, rising to £186 million from April, to grow the maternity workforce and improve maternity and neonatal care.

“NHS England is already working to develop a family-centred care approach for babies, creating more personalised care including improved parental accommodation.”

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