Baby Loss

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:48 pm on 13th October 2016.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 1:48 pm, 13th October 2016

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Colchester (Will Quince). My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, made a courageous and gracious speech; my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester made a powerful and practical one. The number of colleagues in the House who have shared their personal experiences shows how many people across the country have been affected by this issue and the great potential there is to make a real difference to so many people’s lives by bringing it forward for debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends for doing that.

I add my tributes to those of other hon. Members to the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and for Gower (Byron Davies), and the hon. Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). They were truly moving. I have never before in more than six years seen so many Members so visibly moved in the Chamber.

I also pay tribute to the many midwives, consultants and other NHS staff, who in many cases provide good medical and bereavement care to families who have experienced stillbirth and miscarriage. As we have heard, for many people, losing a child is the most difficult time in their lives. High-quality, empathetic care is vital. Thanks should go to all those in this country who work with such dedication and commitment in this arena.

I want to tell a constituent’s story that shows that, yes, the NHS does in part provide extremely good care, but also that it requires more rigour. I received a letter from a constituent whose daughter lost a baby at 20 weeks. She had had excellent care from the gynaecological consultant and the hospital staff, who treated the loss very sensitively, but there were failures in her care. My constituent writes:

“Unfortunately the symptoms leading to the loss of the baby occurred at a weekend. Protocols about sending her straight to the gynae department were not followed. (There was a chance that the pregnancy might have been saved). Nor were other protocols, so that, for instance her midwife hadn’t been informed and rang up”— that must have been some time later—

“asking why antenatal appointments hadn’t been kept. It took a year for my daughter to get the specialist follow-up counselling that should have been offered immediately and she didn’t know she was entitled to some maternity leave.”

That shows, as my constituent says, that there was a “lack of joined-up communication” between different physicians, who were there to assist her daughter. I understand that hospitals in the area are improving the training of staff and support for bereaved parents, but that happened in a large city. In this day and age, that care should have been better. I pay tribute to that young lady because she is setting up a new branch of Sands in her area. It has been wonderful to hear today of the personal experiences of so many Members who, in the course of assisting others, will relive them time and again and put their energies into such organisations.

Stillbirth is a taboo subject but, thanks to this debate, decreasingly so. Stillbirths affect the whole family and, as my constituent says, the

“wider social and work contact groups…Mothers losing babies suffer grief compounded by feelings of guilt and inadequacy” and

“suffer hormonal effects whilst still trying to hold down jobs. I myself”— she is the mother of a daughter who lost a child—

“have found this time emotionally very hard…Surely with more openness and appropriate training of staff our country’s shameful record of stillbirths could be improved. Mental health of bereaved mothers would be improved, resulting in less cost and burden to our health services…my daughter had an undiagnosed streptococcus infection. If screening for this during pregnancy were introduced less babies would be lost.”

I therefore support other Members who have called for better screening.

As an adjunct to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, who mentioned smoking and obesity advice for mothers during pregnancy, may I, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol harm, ask that advice on drinking alcohol during pregnancy is added? The chief medical officer recommended earlier this year that the best advice is simply not to drink alcohol during pregnancy because, as the all-party group has heard, different mothers respond to different levels of alcohol very differently. There has been inadequate publicity regarding that clear recommendation, which I welcome because it clears up decades of confusing advice.

I should like to add my support for one or two points that have been mentioned. Finally, I want to mention one other issue that is still a taboo that we must bravely address and endeavour to break in this country. A quarter of a million miscarriages occur every year. As I have said, it is not only the mothers who feel the loss and grieve and mourn when a miscarriage occurs, but fathers, grandparents and the wider family. They need help too.

Statistics cannot compare with the power of personal experiences such as those we have heard today, but to frame some of the problems encountered by women who miscarry, I have a Miscarriage Association survey of 300 women. Forty-five per cent. of the women surveyed said that they did not feel well informed about what was happening to them physically; only 29% felt well cared for emotionally; and nearly four out of five—79%—received no aftercare at all. The association has noted that access to information and emotional support has been shown time and again to help people to cope with the experience of loss, but that we need to make such support available later if needed. The association has also noted that what was said to grieving women and men was not always important; it was just enough that someone was listening. By having this debate and hearing so many individual experiences, I hope the House has shown to the nation that we are listening and that we care.

Another issue that has been raised is how unborn children are treated before the 24-week stage. As we have heard, when a woman has had a miscarriage, she can be in an extremely vulnerable state. As my constituent has said, women are often not in hospital—in fact, only 18% of miscarriages occur in hospital. As such, a mother is likely to ring up the hospital for advice on what to do, particularly to ask what they should do with the miscarried child. It is of grave concern that there appear to be no strict guidelines on how to advise women in such circumstances.

Zoe Clarke-Coates of the Mariposa Trust, an organisation set up to assist those who have experienced baby loss, has told my office recently that she regularly receives calls from women who have been advised to flush the miscarried foetus down the toilet or put it in a jar in the fridge. That is extremely distressing and traumatising for families. Some women have had to buy new fridges afterwards because it has upset them so much.

Hospital mortuaries need to be available for the foetuses for the unborn child to be properly taken to and stored at the request of parents. The staff who take those calls need to have training across the board to be aware of that. Mortuaries need to be open seven days a week for that purpose and it is important that a directive driven by the Government is given to that effect, and that it is not left to trusts to set up their own systems, which has clearly been completely unsatisfactory to date.