Maternity leave typically begins between two and four weeks before the baby’s due date, with the rest taken after the birth. However, when a baby is born prematurely, the best-laid plans often go out of the window.
Having a premature baby is obviously a very stressful time. Parents are faced with the worry of seeing their newborn fighting for survival and it is an extremely difficult and challenging period in their lives. To help support staff whose premature babies require hospital treatment, a London council has decided to give an extra week of parental leave for each week that their baby is hospitalised before the due date.
Waltham Forest Council is responding to a campaign by charity The Smallest Things calling for more support for the parents of premature babies. Catriona Ogilvy, the founder of the charity, has first-hand experience after her own son Samuel was born just thirty weeks into her pregnancy.
The norm for parents of premature babies is that their leave begins the day after the birth, but Ms Ogilvy’s campaign called for extended leave and is now hoping that the Government will follow Waltham Forest Council’s lead in changing laws relating to maternity and paternity leave. However, so far, it would appear that the Government is not set to make any changes, saying that the maternity leave system in the UK is currently among ‘the most generous in the world’.
Mrs Ogilvy spent the early weeks of her maternity leave in the neonatal unit of the hospital where son Samuel was born. She said, "Mothers like me lose precious time to bond, and experience higher levels of mental health difficulties, following the trauma of neonatal intensive care. They need more time once their baby finally comes home before going back to work."
She praised Waltham Forest Council, calling their policy ‘brilliant’ and commented on how it would benefit not only parents and their babies, but also the employer. The council has said that currently 109 of its staff members are on maternity leave and that had the new rules been in place, fourteen of those would have been eligible for extended leave.
Councillor Clyde Loakes said, "We just want to give that extra bit of comfort and let that extra bit of stress out of what is a very difficult time for both fathers and mothers."
Mrs Ogilvy wants the Government to change the law to allow for extended parental leave for those who have premature babies because she knows that not all employers will be as accommodating as Waltham Forest Council. She wants the current law to be changed so that leave will only begin on the baby’s due date.
She has started a petition, which currently has more than 140,000 signatures. A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson said, "While the current system strikes the right balance between the needs of new mums and business, we'd expect employers to give working parents who have premature babies the support they need."