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More midwives needed after record-breaking year for births

Stuart Bonar, RCM Public Affairs Advisor
1 August, 2017

More midwives needed after record-breaking year for births

New birth figures for England for 2016 have revealed historic changes in the number of babies born to younger and older women.

The number of births to women in both their early (30-34) and late (35-39) thirties are at their highest level since figures were first collected back in 1938. For women in their forties, the number was also up, twice what it was as recently as 1999 and five times the level of the late 1970s.

At the other end of the spectrum, births to teenage women and girls dropped to the lowest level on record, halving in the last decade alone. The number of babies born to women in their early (20-24) twenties was also at its lowest level since officials started counting these numbers over three-quarters of a century ago.

Overall, adding all the numbers up, the total number of live births in England in 2016 was essentially unchanged, down by just one-fifth of one per cent. And some regions of England – the North East, the North West, and the West Midlands – saw their birth numbers rise (over an extra 100 births per month in the case of the West Midlands).

By crunching all the relevant numbers, we discovered that the RCM’s latest estimate of the national shortage of midwives remains at around 3,500. After all, births did not fall that much and the number of midwives did not rise that much.

But the big, historic shifts in the age profile of mothers are intensifying calls for more midwives to cope with the impact. The older the age profile of women using maternity services, the more time and care they will, on average, need from midwives; not every woman, of course, but on average it is the case.

An ageing profile is also seen when we look at the England’s NHS midwifery profession too. In March this year there were over 1,100 midwives in their sixties (up 20 per cent since 2012), including 19 in their seventies. These are very experienced midwives, and the NHS is very lucky indeed to have them, but they are inevitably fast approaching a well-deserved retirement. Indeed, midwives leaving the NHS because they have reached retirement age stood at 600 in 2015/16, up more than a quarter compared to five years earlier.

All of this means it is vital that we train more new midwives, although that is made a lot harder when the Government in England is abolishing bursaries and introducing tuition fees. There are many other things the Government could do to help – a fair pay rise for midwives, for instance, giving guarantees to EU midwives working in the NHS, amongst other things. There is a lot for the RCM to be campaigning on over the lifetime of this Parliament.

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