By Adam O’Connell

Often when a pregnant woman hears that she’ll be giving birth at Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI) her first feeling is one of dread. Bradford is recognised as a ‘spearhead’ district, one of the 70 local authority areas with the worst health and deprivation indicators. This has resulted in the town having an infant mortality rate (IMR), at one time, twice the national average. BRI, as a reflection of that, was reputed to have dirty wards, uncaring staff and outdated equipment

However a recent survey has now shown that 97% of women who have used BRI’s maternity services were ‘likely or extremely likely’ to recommend them to a friend, raising the question – what’s changed?

Julie Walker, Head of Midwifery at Bradford Teaching Hospitals, believes it’s because of the ‘incredible’ advancements that have been made in the past five years, she says, “Five years ago, only 40% of women would be booked in to see us before 13 weeks. This figure is now over 90%. There is much greater access to high quality care when compared and contrasted to five years ago as the range of births we now cater for and the improvements we have made in choice and access have increased greatly.”

In 2012 the hospital opened a new ‘Birth Centre,’ worth £1.2 million, where 30% of all births now take place. The unit boasts several beds and three birthing pools and has been specifically designed to create a home-away-from-home feel. Each room has an iPod docking station as well as birthing aids like birth stools, matts and balls.

Carol Dyson, Birth Centre Manager, says, ‘The feedback we’ve had from mums has been fantastic. Women who’ve given birth in our pools say they’ve found it a very effective form of pain relief.”

There is also a shared kitchen that can be used by patients and relatives as well as a lift that can take them straight to the post-natal wards. The midwife-led team at the centre were short-listed this year for Team of the Year at the British Journal of Midwifery awards.

In 2014 a new, £2 million, neonatal unit was finished. The extension to the existing unit increased the number of babies that could be cared for from 27 to 31. There is also a new waiting area for families, a play area for siblings, a counselling suite and an expressing room for women wanting to breastfeed.

Dr Sunita Seal, says, “The old unit did not have the capacity we needed so quite often babies had to be moved out to other hospitals miles and miles away which is not good for families – they need to be close to home so it’s excellent news that we now have the extra space, facilities and staff.”

Ms Walker believes that most of the improvements have come about due to the 2007 initiative ‘Maternity Matters’ which states that all women should have a choice regarding the place and type of care they receive.

The Head of Midwifery adds, “We have now set up drop-in clinics and extended and developed the type of preparation for parenthood classes we offer such as homebirth and active birth workshops, in addition to the more traditional parenting preparation classes. We also run annual focus groups with people who don’t typical attend parenting classes or give their views easily like women who do not have English as a first language or who are new to the UK.”

However others believe it’s because of the ‘Every Baby Matter’s strategy. An initiative that came about after a two year report by the Bradford district infant mortality commission (BDIMC) into why Bradford has a higher than average IMR and what could be done to improve it. In their summary they listed ten key areas to be improved that would increase the survival rates of babies in the Bradford district.

Proponents of the scheme claim it has, among other things, reduced the teenage contraception rate, increased the use of vitamins in pregnant women and young babies, led to greater training of specialists, improved breastfeeding rates and has caused an improvement in immunisation efforts. It’s reported that this has ultimately led to a 26% reduction in Bradford’s infant mortality rate in its poorest areas.

Cllr Ralph Berry, Bradford Council’s Executive Member for Children’s Services, said: “It is really encouraging to see that babies born in the most deprived areas of Bradford now have a better chance in life because of the initiatives put in place. However, there is still a great deal of work to be done in the district’s Every Baby Matters Action Plan to ensure that these figures continue to fall.”

Director of Public Health Anita Parkin adds, “Every baby that is born is special but every time a new life is lost, it is a tragedy not only for their parents but for society as a whole. We will continue to focus on 10 key areas to improve the survival rates of babies in Bradford district.  We are working to reduce the risks associated with child poverty; improve education and housing; offer early access to high-quality services from pre-conception, pregnancy through to infancy and to improve nutrition and breastfeeding for babies.”