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We must end the scandal of women being forced to give birth alone

Why hospital trusts need to act now to loosen restrictions on care of pregnant women during the pandemic

Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton, is campaigning against lone births during lockdown
Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton, is campaigning against lone births during lockdown Credit: www.aliciakearns.com

Giving birth isn’t what it’s like in the movies. Yes, it’s magical and exciting, but it also can be the most nerve-wracking, – and too often traumatic – experience of a woman’s, and her partner’s, life.

I should know – I had a 36-hour labour with my first baby in 2018 and was in hospital for three days afterwards. It’s a time when you really need to be together as a family, and when women need not just someone to support them, but to advocate for them.

This is why I am campaigning to end the scandal of women going to scans and giving birth alone, something that Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock have both made clear should end. 

Despite being currently pregnant with my second child, this isn’t an issue I’ve faced. My hospital quickly adopted the loosening of restrictions permitted by the Government since 5 June, with a few tweaks: at scans we have to wear masks, and my husband waits outside until the very moment that the appointment began. I thought every woman was getting the same treatment.

I was floored when I started to see horror stories popping up on my Twitter – women being alone as they were told their baby had died in the womb, men missing the birth of their child, or unable to support their partner as they deliver a stillborn baby or go through a traumatic birth.

Thanks to advocacy groups Pregnant Then Screwed and Better Birth I established that around two-thirds of hospital trusts were still not allowing partners in to support pregnant women. This goes against advice from both the Government and the Royal College of Midwives, who both say that it is safe, and indeed recognise that partners improve clinical outcomes for women and their babies.

Women need every support available during what can be a frightening time Credit: FatCamera/Getty

I decided to launch a campaign to get more hospital trusts to follow the advice wherever possible - allowing, of course, for areas where there are local flare-ups in infections or specific circumstances. We know that it can be done, especially since some hospitals allowed women to bring partners even in the height of the nationwide lockdown. 

Since I launched the campaign, I have had hundreds of emails from women and their partners telling me how much they need this to happen. 

One message that really hit me hard was from a husband, who was sat in the car park as his wife was inside the hospital having an operation because their baby had sadly died. Every single thing he cared about in the world was inside that room, and he had to wait outside.

He wrote incredibly movingly about how powerless he felt in the moment: his wife was going through one of the most traumatic experiences of her life, and there was nothing he could do. 

We sometimes forget that maternity care is not just about delivering healthy babies. It is also about navigating the most distressing moments in a person’s life; the moments when you most need your partner or an immediate family member.

Currently, some hospitals are banning partners only from early labour, but allowing them in when women are more than four centimetres dilated. This policy doesn’t take into account the fact that every woman’s body is different. 

With my first child, I was in labour for 36 hours and never reached four centimetres. After a chemical induction I was then twice rushed into an emergency operating theatre with alarms ringing as my son’s heart rate had halved. Midwives and clinicians do a fantastic job, but I cannot imagine what that would have been like without my husband by my side.

This is why the early labour provisions make no sense. If it’s safe for the partner to be there at the end, they can be there at the beginning. This is especially true given that partners are very often from the same household as the pregnant woman, and therefore already in the same bubble. Thank you to all the NHS Trusts who have changed their guidance since the campaign launched two weeks ago.

During that first labour my husband was not only a crucial support for me, he was also a key part of the medical operation. He was the first to spot that our baby’s heart rate had dropped to dangerous levels for a second time, which the midwife had not seen. He played the role of my advocate, making sure doctors were making the right decisions for me when I was too exhausted to do so myself. 

The role of the partner as an advocate is crucial, but often overlooked. In fact, research shows that women and their babies have better mental and physical health outcomes when there is a partner there throughout. 

Now we know more about the virus I urge all NHS Trusts to urgently update their protocols, and to ensure if we have greater restrictions again in the future that the door is never closed to partners.

A midwife recently summed it up to me perfectly, when she said that we keep mothers safe by keeping families together.