NHS Cuts ‘Hit Antenatal Classes’

Hospitals in parts of England and Wales are reducing or even axing services for pregnant women because of the NHS’s financial problems, it has been warned. Antenatal classes and breastfeeding tuition are being affected, the National Childbirth Trust and Royal College of Midwives told the BBC. They said women were being deprived of much-needed advice and support.

The Department of Health said it was committed to a maternity service which put women’s needs first.

Antenatal classes set out what happens in labour and what options women have about how to give birth, as well as offering breastfeeding advice and information on what to expect in the first few weeks as a parent.

The National Service Framework on maternity services, published in 2004, said good antenatal care should include providing access to parenting education and preparation for birth.

Whether or not services are provided depends on local primary care trusts, who pay the local hospital to provide them.

The NCT, which provides paid-for antenatal classes for women, started to compile reports from members about local cuts last October.

So far it has been told 19 areas across England and Wales have either cut or closed antenatal classes or visits to maternity units – designed to help expectant parents become familiar with the surroundings in which they will have their baby.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the NHS, said: “So much of the NHS is closing antenatal classes down. There are a lot of people who would have gone to those classes, but they can’t.”

Ms Phipps said there were also anecdotal reports that postnatal midwife visits, designed to check on the health of the mother and the baby, were also being reduced.

Mervi Jokinen, of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “The NHS is in grave difficulties financially.

“With maternity services, they have looked at what they can leave out. We understand that a concerning amount of antenatal classes are being cut.

“NCT classes are very good, but women and their partners don’t get to know the midwives they will be seeing when they have their babies, like they do with NHS classes.”

One of the areas which has been hit is Maidstone in Kent, where antenatal classes were cut from four sessions to one in October last year.

But Tracey Jewsbury, the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NCT representative, said that its most recent event was inundated, with 300 parents attending.

She said the new arrangements would penalise those who could not access or afford the £150 charge for NCT classes.

“People are desperate for information. But we are definitely heading for a two-tier system.”

A spokesman for Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust said new funding arrangements had led it to reduce antenatal sessions.

He added: “Pregnant women can still access any information they need, from the same midwives as before, but just in a slightly different way.”

In Romsey, Hampshire, NHS antenatal classes were cut completely last June.

Instead, midwives go to women’s homes for a longer than normal 36-week check and give them information about what to expect during labour and birth then.

Local NCT representative Barbara Wyant said: “It doesn’t really seem to be an economy. If they are going out to do longer visits with each woman, they won’t be able to see as many people.”

Maria Dore, senior midwifery manager at Southampton University Healthcare Trust, said: “We have been very open about the pressure we are under to provide a safe, high-quality maternity service for everyone as the birth rate in this area continues to rise.

“One of the steps we have been forced to take in order to maintain safety is restricting the number of antenatal classes that are offered by our maternity staff.”

Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman and Romsey MP Sandra Gidley has written to ministers about the cuts to classes.

A former NCT teacher, she said it would be the most deprived families who would suffer.

“The people who are most in need are the ones least able to access information.”

Jo Webber, deputy director of policy at the NHS Confederation – which represents over 90% of NHS organisations, said: “We would not want women to be going through pregnancy without all of the relevant information.

“It is especially important that women living in deprived areas receive this information and support – as historically it would seem they do not tend to try and access antenatal services.

“PCTs are working hard to provide the best possible antenatal care possible to local patients – this may not always be in the form of an antenatal class.”

A Department of Health spokesman said trusts should meet standards laid down by the NSF, and echoed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

“The soon-to-be-published maternity strategy will set out how we will achieve services that provide real choice and support for women in all settings, from antenatal care through to the early child years.”