Main picture caption: Service Group Manager Children’s Services Sam Williams, centre, with the UNICEF award. She is pictured outside the Maternity and Child Health Block at Singleton Hospital, Swansea, with Singleton Hospital Service Director Jan Worthing, eighth from right, members of the NICU team and mums Rhiannon Purchase, second from right, and Emma Rees, third from right, pictured with twins Ollie and Sophie, now 13 months, who were born premature and received care in the NICU.
A hospital unit for premature babies needing the highest level of care has become the first in Wales to win global recognition after almost doubling breastfeeding rates.
Seventy six per cent of babies discharged from Singleton Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) are now receiving breast milk thanks to the support of staff.
The rate was just 40% four years ago.
It has led to the unit becoming the only level three NICU in Wales to gain full Baby Friendly accreditation from UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and the World Health Organization.
The initiative recognises best practice in promoting breastfeeding based on evidence that it saves babies’ lives, improves health for both baby and mother and ultimately reduces healthcare costs.
Consultant Neonatologist Geraint Morris said their achievement was all the more impressive given that breastfeeding rates in the community are among the lowest in the UK.
Official figures show that between October and December 2018 just 33% of mothers in the former ABMU Health Board area covering Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend were exclusively breastfeeding at 10 days after birth.
This is the third lowest rate out of the seven Welsh health boards and below the Welsh average of 34.5%.
Wales as a whole lags behind England and Scotland when it comes to breastfeeding.
Dr Morris said: “To achieve our change of culture is impressive based on that alone.
“One of the dads referred to his wife’s breast milk as magic medicine.”
Breast milk protects babies against a wide range of serious illnesses including gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in later life. In addition, for babies born prematurely, breast milk offers protection against even more serious conditions including infections, bowel inflammation and damage.
But, however parents choose to feed their baby, they can be assured of strong support in the NICU.
As part of the drive to achieve full UNICEF Baby Friendly status, the unit had to demonstrate it promoted close and loving family relationships in a number of ways.
It has changed the rules around visiting to allow parents with children to bring them in so they can spend more time together as a family.
This has led to siblings coming in for bedtime stories and for cuddles with their little babies in the daytime.
Aspects of parenting which may be taken for granted can prove challenging when a baby requires neonatal intensive care. Through the Family Integrated Care programme, which has been established in Singleton NICU for the last three years, parents are enabled to be partners in all aspects of their babies’ care.
Infant feeding co-ordinator Gaynor Jones said officials from UNICEF UK interviewed around 40 families whose babies had been cared for in the unit as part of the accreditation process.
“The feedback we get from parents is incredible,” she said.
“We are empowering them to care for their babies in this intense and very stressful environment."
Rhiannon Purchase’s daughter Luna was born at 25 weeks plus four days and is being cared for in the NICU, a regional facility which covers a large area stretching from Bridgend across the whole of west Wales and up to Aberystwyth.
“The support has been fantastic. It really is,” she said.
“The whole team actively encourage and support parents to be involved in every aspect of their baby's care. This was huge in terms of me bonding with my daughter.”
And despite complex health problems that meant he was not able to breast feed, Owain Conibeer, who was born at 28 weeks (12 weeks early), had his mum Hedydd Barker’s milk as the team supported her to express.
When Hedydd and partner Chris Conibeer took Owain home to Ystalyfera five months later he was breastfeeding. He is now 19 months old.
“It’s been amazing. The staff were there and they listened,” said Chris.
“We had plenty of support off Gaynor with breastfeeding. It would’ve been much harder if we didn’t have the level of support we did.”
Service Group Manager Sam Williams said: “I am extremely proud of the neonatal unit whose leadership and team ethos continues to shine through as they work closely with families to provide the very best care.”
Baby Friendly initiative programme director, Sue Ashmore, said: “We are delighted that Singleton Hospital’s NICU has achieved full Baby Friendly status.”