The Welsh Government has been urged to do more to improve parental access at neonatal units across Wales as a leading charity warns that the vast majority of units in the country are still preventing two parents from being together cot-side due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Bliss, the UK’s leading charity for babies born premature or sick, says whilst parental access has improved across the rest of Britain in recent months – with all units in Scotland allowing both parents onto neonatal units together and only a handful of units in England still putting any limits on parent access – the overall picture in Wales is quite different.

Despite the Welsh Government recently changing its national hospital visiting guidance to allow “up to two parents, guardians, or carers” to be together at their baby’s cot-side, Bliss says it has found a wide level of variation in practice across Wales.

Many neonatal units are still unable to allow both parents to be with their baby together whenever they want to be due to Health Boards not allowing restrictions to be eased locally, despite the country as a whole now being at alert level 0.

Before the pandemic, parents in the UK typically had unrestricted access to their baby 24 hours a day, with neonatal units encouraging full participation in care-giving. But in the past 18 months, parental access at many units has been severely restricted.

Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive of Bliss said: “It is extremely concerning that there remains such variation in parent access to neonatal care in Wales, which is now an outlier across Britain. Restricting parent access is not a harm-free approach. For babies to have the best long-term outcomes it is essential that their parents are present with them and that they are able to play an active role in their care.

“We urge the Welsh Government to work directly with neonatal units and with individual Health Boards to ensure they are able to return to full 24-hour access for parents and to introduce clearer guidance so that parent access can be improved rapidly across Wales.

“Wales’s smallest and sickest babies need their parents at their side to give them the best chance of survival and quality of life.” 

Lynzy Gardner is a parent in Merthyr Tydfil whose baby was born prematurely in April 2021 and was in NICU for just over 11 weeks before being discharged in July.

Lynzy said: “My baby girl was in hospital for 78 days and me and my partner were only able to be together with her towards the very end. He wasn’t able to be with me cot-side or stay overnight in the parent accommodation due to the one-parent rule – yet parents from different households were able to mix freely in the family area. The rules made no sense, and it was very frustrating for the parents and the nurses. We understand it wasn’t the unit’s fault, but the Health Board’s. I didn’t know anything about a neonatal unit until I found myself on one. It’s been a very difficult experience.”