Mothers are being unnecessarily separated from their newborns in some hospitals due to overly-stringent Covid-19 rules, leading birth charities have warned.
They say inconsistent policies by some trusts mean parents have been made to isolate away from their babies for longer than national guidance stipulates – either after having Covid or as a contact of a positive case.
The charity Birthrights wrote to one trust in support of a woman whose baby was receiving care on the neonatal unit at London’s University College Hospital. Kate Ellis-Martin was told she couldn’t see her baby for 10 days because her husband had tested positive for Covid-19 upon their arrival for a planned Caesarean section on 31 January.
Ellis-Martin said: “I had been double-vaccinated and tested negative but I was still told I couldn’t go to the unit to hold my baby. After the birth I held him for about 20 seconds and then he was taken straight to the unit because he was having problems breathing.
“My mum could visit the unit and there was a webcam set up so I could see him from my room but after a couple of days I began to get very distressed.”
It was only after being transferred to another hospital, four days after the birth that Ellis-Martin was able to hug her baby for the first time.
She says: “We are bonding well but 10 days of separation would have had a really negative impact.”
Maria Booker, programmes director at Birthrights, said: “At times we are seeing a focus on infection control at the expense of human rights and psychological safety and our concern is, two years into the pandemic, when are we going to learn that lesson?”
After the charity wrote to the trust saying its guidance did not appear to follow the latest national guidance for mothers testing negative, the trust said it would update its policy.
Ellis-Martin said she was delighted and relieved at the news. “I’m not surprised it has changed as it was outdated and wrong. I did feel for the midwives because they didn’t write the policy and had a lot of stress to deal with because of it. I wouldn’t want other mums to go through the same thing.”
Another woman who wanted to remain anonymous said she was left traumatised after being separated from her baby born at the same hospital in early January.
She was admitted in December with pregnancy complications and later caught Covid-19 on the antenatal ward. The woman, who had been triple vaccinated and tested negative before the birth of her baby on day eight of her isolation period said: “After the birth my baby was taken away before I could hold her which was really distressing.”
The baby, born prematurely was taken to the neonatal unit and quickly improved. But the mother was prevented from seeing her because trust policy stated the isolation period for inpatients with Covid-19 was 14 days.
“I missed the first three days of her life. I don’t understand why there couldn’t have been an opportunity to hold her sooner. We were both negative.
“This has been one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. In the end I discharged myself before feeling physically ready so I could visit my baby as an outpatient because the isolation for outpatients was only 10 days.”
She said when she eventually went to meet her baby she wasn’t allowed to hold her and was left in shock. During her second visit to the unit she said she “cried hysterically” until staff allowed her contact.
“There were staff who were working really hard in difficult circumstances and I understand the hospital needs policies to keep everyone safe. But I felt there was an enormous lack of compassion in the application of their Covid policies which are hugely draconian.”
Her frustrations were compounded by the apparent contradiction with guidance for staff who were able to come to work after seven days if they had tested negative.
The British Association of Perinatal Medicine strongly supports the view that parents are partners in their baby’s care, not visitors, and recommends the same rules should apply to them as staff working on neonatal units.
The charity Bliss said it had been alerted to issues around isolation guidance at other trusts. The chief executive, Carline Lee-Davey, told the Observer: “In recent months we have heard of a number of cases where hospitals have told Covid-positive mothers to isolate for longer than current guidance sets out, with examples of inconsistent rules applied and unclear communication to parents.
“Where a baby is admitted to neonatal care, the first priority must be to facilitate as early contact as possible between a baby and their parents, given how important this is to the baby’s health and the family’s bonding and attachment. It is vital rules are communicated clearly to parents, and are in line with latest guidance.”
A UCLH trust spokesperson said: “We are very sorry for the distress caused to our two mums at the birth of their babies. This should have been a joyful time of human contact and closeness and our isolation rules did not make this possible.
“We know safety needs to be balanced with compassion and we believe our staff have always done their best in very difficult circumstances. We recognise, however, that as an organisation, we have not always got the balance right.
“We have now updated our isolation policy for maternity patients in line with national guidelines and we have invited the mums to meet with us so we can understand if any further lessons can be learned.”