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30 August

Why do hospitals treat mothers like vessels?

NHS Lothian’s policy of only providing meals to breastfeeding mums is devoid of humanity.

By Alona Ferber

If social media is usually a den of vipers, it can sometimes serve as a litmus test for human decency. A noteworthy example of the latter occurred last week, when the journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett shared her horror at a hospital’s policy regarding mothers, sick babies and food.

“Shocked to learn that the baby unit at Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children will only give breakfast to mothers who are breastfeeding. Shaming and cruel,” she tweeted.

“I know funds are tight but refusing the mother of an extremely sick baby two slices of toast and some juice because she is formula feeding is just unpleasant. Especially when extremely sick babies are often fed through tubes and their mums don’t want to leave them. I honestly think being told this would have broken me when my son was in NICU [neonatal intensive care unit].”

The story was picked up by the Times and NHS Lothian, one of Scotland’s largest health boards, confirmed that the policy is indeed in place for mothers of sick children. “Family members of patients are not routinely offered meals,” NHS Lothian responded. “However, an exception is made for mums who are breastfeeding, who are offered breakfast to help meet their baby’s overall nutritional needs.”

Responses to Cosslett’s tweet showed that many people clearly thought the policy was indecent, and that plenty of people had had similar experiences. One mother recalled only being allowed to eat when she was “attempting to feed and express” while her ill baby was in hospital. When she couldn’t, she said, “my toast and tea was taken away. I couldn’t leave her so ate nothing until visiting time. For ten days.”

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Breastfeeding or not, sitting by a hospital bed for extended periods would be hard on anyone, let alone someone who hasn’t eaten for hours. Of course, hospitals might not be able to feed a patient’s entire family. It seems obvious, however, that a sick child would need its parents, and it seems needlessly cruel to give food to some but not others.

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Mothers face difficult choices at the best of times, and how to feed their infant is one of them. Those mothers who were refused food in the hospital might have decided not to breastfeed because they simply didn’t want to, or because they weren’t able to. Ultimately, it’s their decision. Yet the hospital’s policy drips with judgement of the choices many mothers make. Women who have been through pregnancy and childbirth are only too familiar with this constant appraisal from maternity services and wider society.

The idea that a health service might treat a mother as little more than a machine for her “baby’s overall nutritional needs” is horrifying on dystopian levels. The statement reduces a mother to a body; a vessel whose own nutritional needs are secondary.

This is an excellent case study in policy that is devoid of humanity. It is reminiscent, in fact, of the measures put in place in NHS maternity services during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the name of curbing infection rates, in hospital trusts across the country many women were forced to attend potentially traumatic scans alone, to labour alone, and to look after newborns alone on maternity wards. Birthing centres and homebirth services in some trusts were closed, too, depriving women of freedom to choose. In some hospitals Covid restrictions were in place after NHS England issued guidance to the contrary, causing continued pain and harm to families.

In both cases, health policy has sacrificed freedom of choice. As with Covid restrictions on maternity care, and as with the NHS Lothian story, healthcare policy can make fast work of bodily autonomy. Lest we forget, as a certain tectonic shift in abortion rights in the US recently illustrated, policy on reproductive health is highly politicised – and very rarely neutral. 

[See also: When will Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak get real about the NHS?]

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