Mums claim Newham University Hospital ordered breastfeeding behind screen because of embarrassed man
- Credit: Karis White
Mothers of children treated at Newham University Hospital’s unit for the sickest newborns have complained about their treatment.
The mothers say staff covered them against their wishes when they were breastfeeding in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Mum-of-two Karis White, one of the women affected by the treatment at the NICU, was told by a senior nurse that the screens were because a man had previously made a complaint.
“I can only describe it as a scramble that there was amongst the staff to grab a screen. It was thrust in front of me: a very tall, imposing screen,” she said.
“Trying to opt-out of these screens was really traumatic and difficult. We were vulnerable: I hadn’t slept for, I don’t know, about two full nights at that point.
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“We were not in a fit state to be asserting our rights.”
Karis gave birth to her son, Percy, in August last year. She already has a daughter, who is 5.
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She was in labour for more than four hours at home with Percy before being taken to hospital.
Percy was in the NICU for 24 hours being treated for an issue with blood incompatibility.
When she refused the screen, Karis and Percy were moved into the corner of the room.
At the time she didn’t think much of it, but became aware it was procedure to move screen-resistant mothers into the corner when she met with ward staff last week.
Interrupting or preventing a woman from breastfeeding in public (including in a hospital) is a criminal offence under the Equality Act 2010.
Nurses also gave baby Percy formula against his mum’s wishes.
Choosing whether to breastfeed of bottle feed a child is a personal choice and switching between them can confuse the baby.
Initially on formula to get Percy the fluids he needed, Karis wanted to begin breastfeeding her baby.
But after a shift change, she found he had been given formula. She and her husband, Andy, resorted to putting up a makeshift sign to prevent unwanted feeding.
Another woman, Katrina Banks, was a first-time mother and less prepared to deal with the problems at the NICU.
The former dance teacher gave birth to her son, James, in June 2018. He was delivered seven weeks premature and taken to the unit.
Because of his early birth, he had extra trouble breast feeding.
Like Karis, Katrina also said was not given a choice when they put up the screens she began to feed.
“At the time, I was a first-time mum, I didn’t have a lot of experience and I didn’t know what to do. I kind of just thought, ‘I guess that’s what you do.’
“It wasn’t until I spoke to other mothers that they said, ‘Well, it’s not very helpful to be put behind a screen and people aren’t able to then offer you help.’”
And while she didn’t mind that her baby was given formula, she wasn’t asked to consent to it either.
Katrina has since met with a consultant midwife at the hospital, who apologised for her treatment.
The consultant asked Katrina to make a formal complaint to help with the reform process.
Multiple other women have taken to Twitter to share similar experiences at the unit.
Pooney Sekar, divisional manager of Women’s and Children’s Health at Newham Hospital, said in a statement: “We know the vital benefits of breastfeeding and will always support and encourage women who wish to breastfeed their babies.
“Our midwives and neonatal team are absolutely committed to the baby friendly initiative and share the same goals in supporting women with their choices.
“There are, in some circumstances, clinical reasons to offer formula feed in addition to breast milk, however this follows discussion with the neonatal team and with the consent of the mother.”
She added that the hospital will use clearer signage are better share information about babies’ feeding needs.
A Barts Health spokeswoman insisted that there was not a policy forcing breastfeeding to be screened and that, when women were screened, it was their choice.
She added there were few complaints about the ward.
But none of the mothers saw complaining about the unit as a priority. They had just got their newborn out of the ward that treats the illest babies.
Even when mothers do complain, it can take months to get any attempt at a resolution.
Karis made her complaint in September last year. She met with senior staff last week after chasing the Patient Advice and Liaison Service.
Carolyn Hounsell was also at the meeting. She gave birth to her son Felix in 2017 and had the same problems with screens and feeding over Felix’s four-day stay to treat an infection.
That meeting was the first time Carolyn had been able to speak to the hospital about her problems.
The meeting didn’t resolve the issues for either of the women.
The problems came to light after a WhatApp group of 256 Newham mums (the maximum allowed by the app) shared their experiences at the hospital.
Sian Murray Huynh Tweeted about the issues on behalf of the group. Newham University Hospital replied to the tweet: “The well-being of our mothers, babies and families is always our top priority.”
The mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, has since said she’ll ask her cabinet to look into the issue.
All areas of maternity care in Newham Hospital require improvement according to a February report by the Care Quality Commission.
Three of the areas the health regulator looked at were rated ‘inadequate’, the lowest rating.
This was the most ‘inadequates’ for any department inspected at Barts Health, the trust covering Newham, Tower Hamlets and the City.