Page last updated at 01:01 GMT, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Stillbirth rate 'still too high'

Pregnant woman
Little progress has been made in cutting the rate of stillbirths

The number of stillbirths and deaths shortly after birth remains stubbornly high, claiming 17 babies every day on average in the UK, a report reveals.

Every year in the UK nearly 4,000 babies are stillborn and another 2,500 die within four weeks.

The stillbirth rate has not changed for a decade.

The Department of Health in England said there had been an increase in midwives and consultant obstetricians, and increased investment in the field.

Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, says many deaths could be avoided by better antenatal care and more funding for research.

For too long these deaths have been ignored
Neal Long

The last official enquiry by CESDI, the Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Deaths in Infancy, concluded that nearly half of all unexplained stillbirths might have been avoided with better antenatal care.

Part of the problem, says Sands, is a shortage of neonatal nurses, with 1,700 posts needing to be filled and only 14 out of 50 intensive care units in the UK providing minimum standards of one-to-one care for sick and premature babies.

The charity also found that mums-to-be are not being made aware of the risks of stillbirth, with 42% of 348 mothers questioned not receiving any information on stillbirth from their midwife, even though many cases occur in low risk pregnancies.

Sands said there was a pressing need for more investment for research into the causes of these very poorly understood deaths, adding there was still a taboo surrounding the death of a baby.

Charlotte Williams
Charlotte Williams often lights a candle in memory of her first child, Hope, who died soon after being born.
She said: "You go into hospital with a live baby inside of you, hoping to give birth to that baby, and you leave the hospital with empty arms, with nothing, except this profound sense of emptiness. It takes a long time to get over that."
Chief Executive Neal Long said: "For too long these deaths have been ignored and yet here is compelling evidence to suggest that many babies' lives could be saved with better antenatal care, increased funding for maternity services, more midwives and increased funding for research.

"We want to see action now to save babies' lives."

A Sands survey of 270 bereaved parents found that almost half of parents (48%) did not feel that everything possible was done to save their baby's life, they felt rushed through their antenatal appointments (36%) and not completely confident about the way in which they were cared for in the lead up to their baby's death (49%).

Andy Cole, of Bliss, the premature baby charity, called for more funding for medical research and neonatal staff.

He said more specialist nurses were needed to provide the one-to-one nursing in intensive care required to help vulnerable babies to survive, and then have the best possible quality of life.

Stillbirth statistics

Louise Silverton, of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "We know from our members that in some places antenatal appointments are getting shorter, and that midwives are frustrated because too often they are not getting the time with women that they need.

"It is crucial to ensure that care is centred on the woman and her baby, and that midwives have enough time to provide expert advice and information."

The Department of Health in England said it was committed to improving outcomes for both mother and baby.

A spokesperson said there had been an increase in midwives and consultant obstetricians, and increased investment in the field.

"We have made some progress on outcomes. However, every avoidable stillbirth or neonatal death is one too many."

Ministers have set a target for all women to have access to needs assessment by the 12th week of pregnancy. It is hoped this will allow for individually tailored care, which could help cut stillbirths.

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