UK fathers get ‘all clear’ to support mums in labour and childbirth: advice updated

15 December 2021

Updated 15.12.2021: Please note: This article was written in April 2020, and the situation has since changed, such that visiting restrictions are in place in many NHS maternity (and other services). To find out about restrictions to your local NHS and other services, please contact them directly.

Doctors’ and other clinicians’ professional bodies in the UK have issued clear guidance that fathers who do not have symptoms of Coronavirus should be able to accompany women during labour/birth.

Dads or partners may be blocked from accompanying women to antenatal appointments, including scans, and from staying overnight following the birth – this is subject to local restrictions. Some antenatal and most postnatal appointments will now be taking place virtually, via telephone, Skype or Zoom.

The Royal College of Midwives told us that expectant parents should check with their midwife or local service to find out what the latest guidance is. They said: “There are localised restrictions in place which vary and are dependent upon how severely various trust and areas have been affected by Coronavirus. So RCM advice for concerned women and their partners is to check with their midwife or local service to see if there are changes that may affect them.

“Local restrictions on visitors may mean that partners are not allowed to attend antenatal or stay with women on antenatal or postnatal care wards, however, this should not impact on a birth partners presence during labour or birth, unless they are unwell.”

There have been some reports of men being turned away for all or part of their wives’ or partners’ labour, and earlier on in the crisis a petition calling for protection of the right to have a birth partner during COVID-19 attracted more than 400,000 signatures. The charity Birthrights also issued this statement calling on services to respect women’s right to have the support of a birth partner during labour/ childbirth.

What do the experts say?

The latest guidance and statements from the key clinicians’ organisations is unequivocal about the continued importance of (asymptomatic) fathers being present during labour and birth, including these Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidelines, and this Royal College of Midwives press release and advice for pregnant women.

The International Confederation of Midwives’ guidance and this World Health Organisation Q&A on Covid-19, pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding are similarly clear.

In terms of postnatal care, the Institute of Health Visiting and Public Health England have issued advice clarifying that most face-to-face appointments should be replaced by virtual sessions for the time being.

So what’s happening?

Our goal is not to create additional stress at a time when the NHS is under severe pressure, and individual staff members are putting their lives at risk for the benefit of others – and we would ask all fathers to evaluate and respond to their own situations, and their partners’, with this in mind too.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that clinical priorities and local responses may not always match up. Even before Coronavirus, the NHS was patchy, to say the least, in its engagement with men – despite the kind of clear acknowledgement of fathers’ importance highlighted above. This was revealed by our 2018 Nuffield Foundation-funded report Who’s The Bloke in the Room? and supporting survey, ‘How was it for you?’.

Only a few months ago, dads were accused of using maternity wards ‘like a hotel’ by a midwife at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. You can hear more about this story, and the Fatherhood Institute’s response to it, in this pre-Covid-19- lockdown episode of BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.

So we are concerned that individual organisations, units or staff members may unconsciously be viewing fathers as an unwanted encumbrance, and allowing infection control to become a convenient excuse to exclude men.

One health visitor told us this via the Fatherhood Institute Facebook page:

“I’m a health visitor but also pregnant myself and due in May. I’ve been informed by my local hospital that if baby has to stay in for any reason after birth or if baby comes early and has to go to special care then only mothers can visit. This could be for weeks and I have real concerns about the impact on fathers mental health and their ability to bond with their baby if they’re not have physical contact with them.”

In answer to the question ‘Do you think this is clinically justifed?’ she replied:

“No I don’t think its clinically justified personally, as the mother will be entering and leaving the ward to go home everyday same as dads would be. I think the mental health for both parents will be massively affected, we’re already seeing the effects on mums who have had to stay in hospital for a couple of days and not allowed their other children or partners to visit.”

Some midwives have also expressed the view that fathers should be allowed to stay with mothers after the birth – especially if mothers have had Caesareans or difficult births resulting in restricted movement. Check out this from Family Included.

Updated 15.12.2021: We published Dads Shut Out, based on our 2020-21 survey of fathers’, mothers’ and health professionals’ experiences of maternity services visiting restrictions, in November.

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Need advice or support? Check out our list of key Covid-19 sources here.

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