Figures from the National Neonatal Audit 2013 programme, published today, show that while care has improved for premature babies born in England and Wales since the data was first collected seven years ago, there are still wide disparities.
Neonatal units provide specialist care for premature babies or unwell newborn babies.
Figures show that more than eight in ten babies admitted to a unit within 24 hours have a documented consultation with a senior staff member, compared to just over half of babies admitted in 2008.
More babies in units (87 per cent) are being screened on time for Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a condition that if left untreated can cause blindness.
The number of babies given antenatal steroids, which are used to prevent breathing problems in premature babies, has risen from 89 per cent in 2012 to 93 per cent in 2013.
Hyperthermia remains ‘depressingly common’, despite 93 per cent of babies having their temperature taken within an hour of their birth.
The audit, carried out by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, analysed data from all 179 neonatal units operating in England and Wales in 2013.
Dr Sam Oddie, clinical lead for the audit programme, said that the data showed rapid improvements, with ‘very nearly all babies’ getting care that meets the audit standards, but said more work was needed to ensure that all babies in neonatal units receive the same high standard of care regardless of postcode.
She highlighted figures that showed that babies born in the south of England are more likely to be able to breastfeed when they are discharged from neonatal units.
Breastfeeding can help to protect babies from infection and is therefore particularly beneficial for premature babies, she said.
Figures reveal a five percentage point rise in babies that are able to breastfeed when they leave neonatal units, up from 54 per cent in 2011 to 59 per cent in 2013.
‘As being born early carries a small health disadvantage, early babies have so much to gain from breastfeeding –they will be at lower risk of complications of prematurity as well as being less susceptible to allergy and infections. So the steady rise in the number of early babies going home breastfeeding is encouraging,’ Dr Oddie said.
But she said that she was concerned about the ‘north/south divide’.
‘Expressing milk for and then breastfeeding an early baby is hard work for mums, but the benefits it carries, for mum and baby alike, are worth the persistence. So we need all healthcare professionals to support mothers to breastfeed. Doing this will not only drive up national breastfeeding rates but more importantly, bridge that gap.’
The National Neonatal Audit Programme (NNAP), commissioned by the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership (HQIP) as part of the National Clinical Audit Programme, was set up in 2006 to assess whether babies requiring specialist neonatal care receive consistent high quality treatment in England and Wales and to identify areas for improvement.