New maternity leave laws are needed to protect mums of premature babies
Every year, about 4,500 babies are born prematurely (fewer than 37 weeks' gestation). One in 16 Irish women delivers a pre-term baby.
The impact on parents and extended families can be significantly challenging and sometimes very daunting.
The joyous occasion of the birth of their newborn moves swiftly on to fear and concern for the well-being of their baby. Emotionally draining and physically exhausting days, weeks and months lie ahead for these parents.
At the time of the baby's arrival, parents' concerns and anxieties are naturally focused on the baby's well-being and progress. Maternity leave and benefit may be the last things on a mother's mind but she soon faces the reality of being treated by the State in a markedly different and unfair way compared with mothers fortunate enough to give birth to full-term babies.
Under the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and 2004, a mother is entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave and 16 of weeks unpaid leave. Maternity leave comes into effect on the date of the birth of the child.
However, babies surviving from the earliest gestations, such as 23 weeks, can spend months in a neonatal unit in hospital under the watchful eye of their parents. As their organs have not had enough time to develop in utero, premature babies are more at risk of disease and infection than full-term infants.
The babies who are discharged from a unit with a definite long-term diagnosis or on supportive medical equipment often still need full-time care in the home. Under current legislation, a mother will have used up the majority of her maternity leave before her baby even makes the journey home.
It is possible for a mother to defer her maternity leave while her baby is in hospital but there is no recognition of the vigil that can last weeks, no allowance for the time when her life has been propelled into a frenetic world. Nor does the legislation take into account mothers who are ill or have had c-sections.
Going back to work while a baby is and hooked up to tubes in a glass box is also out of the question for many parents, especially when there is much evidence that babies benefit greatly from the touch and closeness of a parent.
Legislation and policy abjectly ignores these parents and is cruel in its disregard of the difficulties they face. In some cases, they have to travel up to four hours on a daily commute to neonatal intensive care units in Dublin. This incurs expenses in medical care, accommodation, transport, parking and food, and puts severe stress on parents and their other children.
Last week, I received a letter from Tara, whose son Patrick was born at just 23 weeks and weighed about 1lb. His body was the size of a mobile phone. For 70 days, Tara and her husband watched Patrick fight for survival on life support. Tara's maternity leave started the day he was born. When Patrick was finally discharged, she had only eight weeks left of paid maternity leave. Returning to work couldn't have been further from her mind, as Patrick had to attend regular appointments, had two operations, and ended up in A&E with chronic lung disease.
Where is the support for Tara and the thousands of other mothers every year who face this challenge? This Wednesday, I will be bringing a motion before Dail Eireann calling on the Government to extend the period of statutory maternity leave and maternity benefit for mothers of premature babies.
If we are to truly cherish our children, then we also need to cherish mothers, supporting them in their care of their children. This motion is a test for the new politics of the 32nd Dail where members of all parties and none have a chance to unite behind these mothers, to protect families, and give them the help they need and deserve.
Catherine Martin is deputy leader of the Green Party and a TD in Dublin Rathdown