12 September 2017
‘My Start to Maternity Leave Was Not How I Imagined’ – Why Parents of Premature or Sick Babies Deserve More Support
The new guide published by ACAS on how employers should support parents of premature or sick babies reminded me of my own experience when my twins were born.
Arda and Azer weighed just 3.7 and 4.2 lbs when they were born prematurely at 33 weeks and it was a rollercoaster of emotions for me and my husband – joy and excitement mixed with anxiety and uncertainty.
Unless you yourself have experienced a premature or difficult birth or know someone close who has, it can be an extraordinary learning curve and knowing the right thing to do or say can be tricky.
With over 95,000 premature or sick babies born each year in the UK, the recently published ACAS guide setting out best practice guidance for managing employees is to be welcomed. Speaking from experience, however, I think more could be done to help new parents who find themselves in these difficult circumstances.
‘My start to maternity leave was not how I imagined it to be’
Not many people know that if your baby is born prematurely your maternity leaves begins the very next day. If you haven’t already planned for this possibility (luckily I had because I knew with twins it was highly likely!) this can come as a complete shock and those final weeks set aside for planning, shopping for baby clothes and detailed handovers at work can be immediately lost.
That’s just the start: for many mums like me this also means weeks, often months, before you can actually bring your baby or babies home. My start to maternity leave was not how I imagined it to be. Whilst ‘normal’ mums were at home enjoying their newborns, I spent the time in neonatal intensive care - a scary world full of monitors, beeps and breathing machines – where I had to leave my babies every night and make the heartbreaking journey home.
Luckily, both my husband’s and my employer were very supportive. My husband was allowed his usual paternity leave, but then extended special leave once the twins were home and was able to enjoy being a dad. ACAS recommends that employers remind those partners who are eligible for paternity leave and pay that they can take this leave within eight weeks of the actual date of birth or within eight weeks of the date that the baby was due to be born if they prefer (some partners may prefer to take paternity leave once their baby is home).
‘Whilst ‘normal’ mums were at home enjoying their newborns, I spent the time in neonatal intensive care’
There are many reasons why the UK government should consider extending maternity leave for premature or ill babies.
1. The first is financial – The cost of having a baby in care adds up. Maternity leave and pay ends a lot sooner than expected, when mums are not yet ready to leave their precious babies but financially may have no other choice. Reducing the financial burden by extending statutory maternity pay and giving back precious time to bond could help to ease worries and strengthen relationships.
2. Bonding is critical - There is a lot of watching and waiting for an opportunity to hold your own baby, something I never thought would be a luxury, and precious time to bond is lost. Whilst I appreciate that extending maternity leave cannot give back this lost time, it can give added, precious time in which to spend at home to bond, benefiting both mum and baby.
3. The baby’s health and mum’s mental health – What many do not realise is that premature babies are babies for longer. You have to measure development with reference to a ‘corrected’ age, (calculated according to their due date) rather than their actual age, so a mum who planned to take six months off may find herself going back to work when her baby is just three months old.
Employers need to understand the real implications of a premature birth and the likely ongoing medical concerns and regular hospital appointments that follow.
Ongoing medical difficulties and maternal mental health all impact on a mum’s ability to return to work. According to research from Charity ‘The Smallest Things’, 40 per cent of mums whose babies spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit experience post-natal depression, compared to five to 10 per cent of mums who have healthy full term deliveries. Sixty per cent of mums felt their maternity leave was too short following premature birth.
Given the above, it is crucial that employers understand why it is so important to support parents of premature or sick babies. Hopefully employers will take note, and ACAS’s guide will encourage employers to do more to support affected parents now and in the future.
Remziye Ozcan is an employment solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.