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Beena Nadeem reports on moves to change the law so parents of premature babies get the parental leave they need.
For most, maternity leave is a lifeline for parents coping with the heady first months of new-born chaos. For those whose babies arrive early life is flung into a series of impossible decisions around work, finances and spending time with their vulnerable baby.
For mums taking maternity leave pay begins when their baby is born. This could be weeks or months before their due date, meaning the time to return to work is often when their babies are still in hospital. For their partners, leave has to be taken within 56 days of the birth.
“I’d worked as a children’s occupational therapist in neonatal intensive care units and had no idea that the mums sat beside incubators were using up all of their maternity leave,” says Catriona Ogilvy, founder of premature baby charity The Smallest Things.
Despite governments discussing maternity and paternity pay around these challenging times for parents with premature babies, there’s still nothing in law to protect them.
It’s a story that is repeated around the country every single day. Last year around 37,000 babies in the UK were born prematurely; nearly half of them were admitted to intensive care units. All the while, parents are using up their maternity leave and pay. Parking, meals, additional childcare and lost earnings for an average family with a premature baby alone costs £2,000. It’s little wonder parents are forced to return before they are ready, or have to give up work entirely.
A new survey by charity Bliss shows that two-thirds of dads are forced to return to work while their baby was still receiving specialist neonatal care. Around a third – 36 per cent- resorted to signing-off sick to spend time with their babies.
This was the reality for dad Lawrence Quayle. While his son Leo was in intensive care fighting for his life, Lawrence was negotiating with his firm who refused him any annual leave. “I could only take unpaid leave, which I could not afford,” he says. Unable to take the stress, Lawrence ended up signing off work for two months before leaving the company altogether.
“It’s not just about spending day after day of your maternity leave visiting your baby in neonatal intensive care, it’s also needing the time to bond and recover from the trauma and uncertainty of neonatal intensive care,” says Catriona.
Maternal Mental Health says 40% of mothers develop Post Natal Depression following premature births (compared with 5-10% of full-term mothers), while more than half go on to display signs of post-traumatic stress, suggesting that time for recovery is vital for mums too.
It’s little wonder that Bliss says 11 per cent of parents do not return to work, though what is perhaps more worrying is the 38% of mums who felt they had no choice financially to return once their maternity leave had run out.
Bliss is calling for the government to give parents extra paid time off for every week their baby is in neonatal care. And although the English and Scottish governments are discussing whether to adopt these changes, it seems only the Northern Ireland Executive which has enshrined such protections into law.
The Smallest Things is calling for employers to sign up to its ‘Employer with Heart’ charter which pledges to ensure parents are provided with additional leave to cover the number of days the baby was born before its due date. The campaign, which launched last year, is already getting decent support with music company Sony UK, cruise company Carnival Cruises and South Yorkshire Police already on board.
Waltham Forest Council became the first in the UK to provide extended leave of this kind. Councillor Clyde Loakes who helped with the move, says: “It’s a small thing we can do that will make a huge difference for families. I don’t understand why more employers don’t do this.”
Medway became the first NHS Trust to build in extended maternity leave for parents with premature babies. Deputy chief executive James Devine, says: “The last thing we want is for our hardworking staff to feel they have to worry about work or whether they can afford to take time off to be with their baby”.
Meanwhile, employees at the City Hall are now offered premature and neonatal baby leave. It goes even further by offering to return on informal and flexible working and if needed, additional paid or unpaid leave.
Bliss together with The Smallest Things and others have worked with ACAS guidelines to draw together some guidelines for the industry too. However, these won’t extend to protecting the one in seven people in Britain who are self-employed.
Until extended maternity leave or pay is protected by law for parents of new-borns, it seems it is down to companies themselves to make the change. “Parents in neonatal intensive care need additional time right now. They can’t wait for the government to bring about this change,” says Catriona.