NHS is failing new mothers and babies by ignoring fathers

By Nuffield Foundation

The NHS is failing to provide the ‘family-centred’ antenatal, maternity or health visitor services required by its own rules and desired by parents.

A new Nuffield-funded survey of new fathers by the Fatherhood Institute has found that, since 2004, NHS policy requires maternity services to deliver ‘mother-focused and family centred’ care. Pregnant and birthing women typically want their partner with them not only because he is their closest companion but also because he provides continuity of care and support amid stretched NHS services.

“Who’s the bloke in the room?”, published today by the Fatherhood Institute and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, details how expectant fathers in Britain are key influences on maternal and infant health and well-being, including on pregnant women’s smoking, diet, physical activity and mental health, and on children’s later adjustment.

However, although almost all of the new fathers were present in maternity services at each stage of the pregnancy and birth, new polling by the Fatherhood Institute/Fathers Network Scotland’s shows that large numbers of dads felt ignored before, during, and after delivery, even though their involvement is central to infant and maternal well-being and is desired by mothers.

65% of respondents reflecting on the antenatal services they had received, said the healthcare professionals had rarely or never discussed fathers’ roles. More than half (56%) said they had rarely or never been addressed by name. Fewer than a quarter had been asked about their physical health (22%) or diet and exercise (18%). And even though a father’s mental health is closely correlated with a mother’s, only 18% had been questioned about it. Around half (48%) had not been asked about smoking, despite the risks of passive smoking to babies, and fathers’ key role in supporting pregnant mums to give up. NHS staff visiting after the birth spoke about fathers’ roles ‘rarely’ or ‘never’, according to nearly half the respondents, even though dads influence infant feeding and are key to spotting maternal depression.

Our survey shows that dads are there for mums every step of the way – at routine antenatal appointments, for the scan, labour, birth and back home. No-one can say dads are not interested or unwilling. But the survey reveals serious failings in the NHS approach at every stage. Too often, services are ignoring fathers, in spite of dads’ importance to healthy pregnancies and babies and even though mothers want their partner to be involved and informed.” Adrienne Burgess, Co-Chief Executive of the Fatherhood Institute

The report’s six recommendations are all about making fathers welcome throughout pregnancy, birth and early infancy, and valuing the role they play not just as supportive partners but also as independent parents with a unique connection to their baby:

1. Change NHS terminology to refer to fathers
2. NHS staff to invite, enrol and engage with expectant dads
3. Deliver woman-focused, family-centred services
4. ‘Father-proof’ maternity staff training
5. ‘Father-proof information for expectant and new parents
6. Collect better data on expectant fathers.

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