One in five mothers-to-be are left alone during labour and a third do not have the same midwife in charge during their pregnancy, despite ministerial pledges to improve maternity services, a new survey shows.

As many as 64% of women say they are not given the option of having their baby in a midwife-led unit, despite government promises on choice of place of birth stretching back to 2007.

The findings emerged from a survey of 1,828 pregnant women and mothers of up to two-year-olds conducted last month by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and Bounty Parenting Club. Campaigners claimed they showed that a shortage of midwives is affecting women’s experience of NHS maternity care and that coalition promises made as recently as May were not being fulfilled by hospitals.

One of those pledges was that every expectant woman would have a named midwife who would oversee the care they received throughout their pregnancy and after they had given birth. But almost one in three of the respondents said they always had a different midwife, while 60% of women in London – where the lack of midwives is especially acute – said the same.

Women were first promised one-on-one care by a midwife during labour and birth by the previous government in 2007 and again by health ministers in May. But 18% of survey participants said they were not supported constantly throughout this testing time, which could mean that as many as 120,000 women are left alone.

The RCM said the fact that 64% of mothers-to-be were not offered the chance to deliver in a midwife-led unit rather than a doctor one underlined that the NHS has too few midwives. The college added that it showed that childbirth facilities are “inadequate” to give women the choice between giving birth in an obstetric unit in a hospital, at home or in a midwife-led unit, which can be at a hospital or several miles away.

In May ministers also pledged better NHS care for those suffering postnatal depression after a miscarriage, stillbirth or death of their baby. But a third of the survey said they received too little such support.

“This important survey demonstrates clearly that more progress can and should be made to improve patient experiences of maternity services. The government need to respond positively to this evidence by taking action on their own maternity pledges which will deliver better care for women – before, during and after giving birth,” said Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association.

Cathy Warwick, the RCM’s chief executive, said that while ministers had committed to improving maternity care “actions speak louder than words and this survey shows there are many challenges ahead to ensure their promises are delivered across England.”

Andrew Gwynne, the shadow health minister, claimed the NHS was unable to deliver government pledges on maternity care because ministers had “distracted and destablised” it with their radical shake-up of the service in England.

But Simon Burns, the NHS minister, said childbirth services would improve, but only over time.

Published in the Guardian, Friday 24th August 2012

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