Dads sidelined in maternity wards
Proud new fathers are obliged to leave the hospital when visiting hours are over but in Britain a family-inclusive pilot scheme allows them to stay overnight
Published 06/09/2010 | 05:00
AFTER giving birth you need your partner on hand to provide vital support. But for some reason as soon as visiting hours are over, new dads are unceremoniously shown the hospital door.
At last, the traditional role of the dad as someone who's happy to head off for pints and a cigar after his child is born is being challenged. In June it was announced that dads will be allowed to stay overnight in maternity units in the English city of Bath after the birth.
Partners Staying Overnight is a novel pilot scheme which is being brought in to allow fathers help and support their partners, and bond with their new babies. As well as these benefits, it is also hoped that the presence of the dads will ease the workload of overstretched maternity staff.
Back in March, the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also announced that he was going to change the constitution of the National Health Service to allow dads stay in hospital after their partner has given birth.
"We want to see services changed so that not just mums, but dads, can be given a bed if they need to stay in hospital overnight after the birth of their baby," said Mr Brown.
Other family friendly hospitals are also appearing in the UK. In London, a new maternity facility in St Mary's Hospital has bedrooms which are all en-suite, with double beds, mats, birthing pools and a hammock. The rooms also have a TV for the whole family to relax together and welcome their new arrival.
Family birthing suites providing a home from home experience for mothers are already common in countries like Canada and Sweden.
In Ireland there are no clear-cut plans to allow for family friendly maternity stays in hospital. The HSE said that the issue of dads being allowed overnight in hospital is not their responsibility and is down to individual hospital policy. A spokeswoman for the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street in Dublin said they have open visiting hours for fathers between 8.30am and 9pm and they are allowed as much access as possible.
"It depends on each case. It's really down to the issue of a lack of space and privacy for new mothers," she added.
The Coombe Women's Hospital said there are no set facilities for dads who would like to stay over but they are given a card to gain access during standard visiting hours. A similar card system operates in Dublin's Rotunda Hospital.
There are some exceptions. In Mount Carmel maternity hospital there are no formal visiting hours so fathers can come and go as they please because of the open visiting rules.
Maternity experts believe there's strong evidence that more direct involvement by fathers immediately after the birth greatly benefits all the family. Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the UK Fatherhood Institute, believes dads need to be there all the time. "The father needs to be on the ball and in the picture from the start," she says.
"In a survey, fathers of babies born by caesarean got to hold the baby more while the mother was being tended to. It was established that this was very powerful in terms of the bond between father and baby."
Adrienne claims rules regarding dads in maternity hospitals are too inflexible. "Seventy-one per cent of new mothers turn to their partner for support as opposed to a midwife or a medic. When people are dying of cancer, chairs are provided so people can stay with them. I can't see why this can't be provided to new fathers. They tend to be very well behaved, you know!"
Science also backs up the principle of accommodating dads more.
"The latest research shows that the more the father holds the new baby the greater the bond. There's an actual hormonal response in the male when they hold the baby and these hormones have been shown to reduce aggression and testosterone," she adds.
"As it stands, the system alienates the fathers from the process. The more the father does with regard to parenting early on, the less stress is on the mother and the higher the satisfaction is for the father.
"The traditional school of thought is that the father should get his night's sleep and not be disturbed -- but the opposite is true.
"A better connection between dad and baby is formed out of all of these little tasks . . . being up at night, or changing the nappies," says Adrienne.
The forming of the bond between the father and baby must always be encouraged.
"You must remember there is not an instantaneous connection between all mothers and babies and it is the same for fathers.
"Much is being made about women being made to feel inadequate about not having an immediate bond with their baby, but it's equally important for fathers. They risk becoming distanced from the whole experience if they're not involved," she warns.
Adrienne understands the need for fathers' support, as she herself experienced a traumatic birth. "I recognise it now as traumatic and why wouldn't it be, as it is such a monumental event? My husband was sent home, which really compounded the problem for me and our baby."
One dad who would have liked the opportunity to stay over in the maternity hospital is lawyer and father of two Mal Sweetman. His first child Evie (4) was born in a maternity hospital while his second child Reuben (1) was born at home.
Mal found the hospital experience quite distancing. "In terms of post-natal support the regime in the hospital didn't help. It felt odd to be doing something else after the baby was born. It was like being sent home on your honeymoon.
"There was the whole question of arriving home and thinking 'what do I do now?' Visiting hours were inconvenient because they were not necessarily the times that suited Suzie and Evie. It felt artificial," says Mal.
The maternity hospital certainly didn't make him feel relaxed. "It was very much a hospital atmosphere. It wasn't conducive to kicking off your shoes and curling up in the bed. You feel like you're a visitor, so you're thinking about when you have to go."
Mal does understand that many of the rules are there for a reason. "I understand the rules are out of consideration for the mothers and the newborns. I saw one shell-shocked new mother surrounded by a huge gaggle of relatives," he recalls.
But he feels it was wrong that he was out of the picture for the duration of the birth.
"From when Suzie went into hospital I was sidelined. When she was being given the epidural I was asked to leave. I was kicking my heels in the waiting room and me being asked to leave had a negative impact on Suzie's labour
"You don't argue first time round. The awareness isn't there. People don't think that fathers have an emotional response to these situations. They're just there for arguing with consultants and nurses!" Mal says.
His second child, Reuben, was born at home and his role was much more hands-on.
"I was part of the whole process and was Suzie's support during the labour. The midwife was in the background and only really came into the picture when the baby arrived.
"The aftermath was fantastic. Suzie was delighted and was very proud of the fact she was up and about making tea. I was involved in all of the practical decision-making and even had to sort out the birthing pool when it sprung a leak!"
Mal's wife, Susannah Hague, a research student in the area of maternity care, claims his role wasn't really supported in the hospital.
"The whole way through the pregnancy I didn't realise how important Mal's support would be. But once I went into hospital he was secondary." She feels a lot of the things he was asked to do were really just tokenistic.
It was scary without him there at such a vulnerable time. "By day two in the hospital I was exhausted and Mal wasn't there. I felt so alone and frightened. The nights felt so long," says Susannah.
"The security guards would come around and hunt the fathers out. I remember us looking at each other and wondering if he should hide under the bed. What do they think dads were going to do? There was no need for it.
"Mal was doing lots of practical things like bringing sandwiches and coffee. I could also ask Mal to hold the baby while I went to the toilet or had a shower. I felt I couldn't ask nurses to help me with these kinds of things because they were so busy," she says.
"The nurses didn't have time to talk to me. There was nothing wrong with me or my baby. It was just that I didn't know what to do."
In contrast, Susannah remembers the morning after Reuben was born at home.
"All three of them were exhausted and asleep. It was a wonderful feeling watching my family sleep while I sat there relaxing with a cup of tea."