A Girvan mum is set to become the first to receive additional support from South Ayrshire Council following the premature birth of twins. In what's thought to be a national first for Scotland, Council employees with children who receive hospital care following a premature birth are being given additional paid maternity and paternity leave.
Premature births represent 6.5% of Scottish births according to IDS Scotland figures, and the Council estimates that five female staff members are likely to go into early labour every year. The NHS defines premature babies as those born before 37 weeks, ranging from moderate to late (32-36 weeks) through to extremely pre-term (before 28 weeks).
Changes to the Council's Special Leave Policy mean that female employees are now entitled to seven days' paid leave for every week a baby is born prematurely and in hospital care. The additional time will be added on to the end of maternity leave period, allowing mums to enjoy the quality time with their children often denied to them early on, due to the baby's complex medical needs. Dads, partners and caregivers of premature babies at South Ayrshire Council are now entitled to two weeks' paid additional special leave on compassionate grounds, following the birth of the baby.
Cherlene O'Donnell is the first person at South Ayrshire Council to benefit from the new policy. In November 2017, Cherlene left work early one day feeling unwell, with her son Conor born the next day (on 8 November, 2017) weighing 1lb 7oz, with daughter Aoife following on 9 November weighing 1lb 6oz. Heartbreakingly, Conor passed away just five days later, with Aoife spending the next 16 weeks in intensive care and high dependency units. Although Aoife is still using oxygen overnight she's now well on the way to living a normal life and now weighs nearly 14lbs.
Cherlene who will have four months paid leave at the end of her maternity leave, which is equivalent to the period Aoife was in hospital, said the support she had been shown from the Council and colleagues has been life-changing, "I don't think anyone knows how to deal with a premature birth before they find themselves in that position and I was absolutely terrified when it happened.
"Medical complications meant we were travelling from Girvan to Crosshouse and later to Glasgow for several months, which put a tremendous strain on our family, both emotionally and financially – but when the only thing you want is the best for your baby, you do absolutely everything to make sure they're OK.
"If the Council hadn't introduced this new policy I would have had to return to work this month, but I'll now have four months simply enjoying the first real family time we've had. I feel privileged to be the first person to have this opportunity.
"The Council has been amazing in the way they've handled my case and it's great to know that in future others in the same situation will have the same support which will make a real difference to their quality of life."
Councillor Peter Henderson, South Ayrshire Council's Portfolio Holder for Resources and Performance said, "As Cherlene's case shows the sudden, traumatic stress that a premature birth places on families is huge and we're committed to supporting our staff through these difficult times in order to return to work having had quality time to bond with their child.
"Complications, which result in higher travelling costs to and from hospital, the extra time required to deal with birth-related health issues, and a propensity for higher levels of depression all add up to testing times for parents caring for a premature baby.
"By changing the way we work as a Council, we're leading from the front, taking a proactive and positive approach and providing additional support for our staff at a time they need it most. We also hope this positive move will inspire other organisations to consider making a similar change."
The new approach has been warmly welcomed by the premature and sick baby charity, Bliss Scotland. The charity's Chief Executive, Caroline Lee-Davey, said, "This new support will make a huge difference to families experiencing the upheaval which a premature birth brings and this responsible move will help to remove some of the stress experienced during these traumatic times.
"Our evidence is clear that babies do best when their parents are as involved as possible in their care on the neonatal unit, and we know that there are considerable costs associated with having a premature or sick baby, with an average of an extra £2,256 spent by parents while their baby is in hospital.
"By extending paid leave, parents of premature babies will be able to spend as much time as possible with their child without the additional burden of financial pressure. We hope that councils across Scotland will follow in South Ayrshire's footsteps."
The 'Enhancements to Special Leave Policy' paper is available here.