Save the Children UK have launched an admirable and worthy campaign to help end the unnecessary deaths of newborn babies around the world. An unacceptably tragic 1 million babies a year don’t live past their first day of life, with nearly 3 million not living to see their second month.
The majority of these deaths would be preventable, if the mother and her newborn were attended by a health professional, namely a midwife, at the birth. Lack of access to basic medical supplies, antiseptics, antibiotics, a clean environment, intervention when required – all of the things we take for granted in the UK – make giving birth in developing countries a frightening and unpredictable experience, with mothers often having their babies in traumatic circumstances with little or no support, not even knowing if they will survive.
How lucky we are, I thought, that we don’t have to worry about such things here. From the luxury of our NHS maternity bed, with all modern techniques and equipment at our disposal; midwives or obstetric consultants at our beck and call; in a safe, clean, well-equipped hospital ward or state of the art birthing centre – what could possibly go wrong?
Frightening? Unpredictable? Traumatic? These are not words we would use to describe giving birth in this country.
According to blogger Feminist Mum, sadly among others, they are. Her brutally honest post about the very real fear too many mums in the UK have about giving birth highlights some uncomfortable truths.
The medical advances which supposedly make our maternity services so much safer, actually seem to be contributing to the traumatic experiences of some mothers, with upsetting memories of an assisted delivery or unwanted intervention casting a shadow over future pregnancies, or even putting them off having any more children at all. Leaving hospital with a healthy baby does not necessarily mean the experience of care was good; that the woman was wholly supported by an attentive midwife; that she was given choices about what happened in the delivery room; that she felt respected and treated with dignity.
And in some tragic circumstances, the highly trained consultant will not make the right decision; the overstretched midwife will not recognise a complication; the desperately needed ambulance transfer won’t make it in time. Even with all our relative luxuries, too many babies don’t see their first day in this country, never mind in the poorest places of the world.
Sadly, this is a fact of life, and placing the blame for every pregnancy loss and neonatal death squarely at the feet of the maternity provider is neither accurate nor helpful. The insistence of some sections of the media, however, to report every terrible story of hospital negligence (which does happen, we should not deny) as the norm in today’s maternity services is only fuelling the fire of fear burning under the expectant mums in their care. Even the language used with the best of intentions in the antenatal setting can lay the groundwork for an anxious pregnancy – ‘high-risk’, ‘complications’, ‘interventions’ – potentially decreasing the likelihood of a ‘normal’ birth.
Fear plants the seeds of doubt in the woman’s mind that maybe the midwifery-led unit wouldn’t be the best choice after all; what if something goes wrong; maybe she should go to the hospital; something doesn’t feel right; she’d rather see a doctor; she’d rather have an epidural; is a caesarean really necessary? Does she have a choice in the matter?
Of course there is a necessity for medical intervention in many pregnancies with very good reasons – I was induced early due to pre-eclampsia myself and I thank the midwife who spotted my high blood pressure and the team who ensured the safe delivery of my son from the very bottom of my heart. But such an experience should not have to mean that I am terrified to fall pregnant again for fear of another complication. I have the midwives who attended me to thank for the fact I would have confidence in them again. When maternity care is done right, we provide amongst the best in the world.
But where women have had negative experiences within the NHS, we need to know, so that as an organisation we can move towards making the necessary changes to ensure safe and positive experiences for all parents and their precious babies. Better training, more midwives, quality control and accountability, compassionate care – none of which are insurmountable and should be recognised as necessary to protect women at their most vulnerable.
But before the big changes, come the little ones. Sometimes all it takes for a traumatic experience to become a positive one is a kind midwife bringing tea and toast, and five minutes of her time to listen to you. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to hold your hand. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to tell you not to be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.