The specialist Mother and Baby Unit at the Bethlem Royal Hospital has been recognised as providing an example of “best practice” in caring for women suffering with severe mental illness during pregnancy or post-birth.
An NSPCC report released last week suggests the wellbeing of more than one in 10 newborn babies in England could be improved if all new mothers with mental illness had equal access to good services.
The report states there is evidence to show that the work carried out at the Channi Kumar Mother and Baby Unit, part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, leads to significant improvements in mental state in approximately three quarters of women, in the sensitivity of mothers with schizophrenia and postpartum psychosis when interacting with their babies and major improvements in the interaction of the babies of mothers with schizophrenia, psychosis and depression.
The 13-bed unit was set up for women who develop or have a relapse of serious mental illness during pregnancy or following the birth of their baby. The unit offers a wide range of treatment, therapy and care which is not offered on the same scale in any other unit in the UK.
One unique factor is the work of a developmental psychologist who works closely with the mothers and infants.
Dr Susan Pawlby works clinically as a developmental psychologist at the unit and academically at the King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry.
She said: “I think our unit stands out because we have a developmental psychologist to work with nursery nurses and nurses on the ward and most other units do not have that.
“It means we can give mothers and infants more support in forming and maintaining this early and most fundamental relationship. We have developed video feedback interventions so that mothers can see how their babies respond to them. Together we watch video clips of play sessions, talk about the communication between the mother and her baby in order to help mothers develop their relationship with their baby.
“We systematically evaluate this intervention and see how effective it is. Our work is to encourage mothers to respond to their babies’ cues, so that mothers become more sensitive and babies more co-operative in their interaction with one another. I am delighted our work has been recognised by the NSPCC.”
Alongside this support, the Mother and Baby Unit also treats mothers with medication where needed. The unit also offers various forms of therapy (psychological, art psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and cognitive analytical therapy), life skills, health skills, leisure activities, baby massage and dance therapy.
Following the release of the report the NSPCC is calling on health ministers to lead a drive to address major gaps in access to mental health services for pregnant and new mums.
Mental health problems including depression, anxiety, postpartum psychosis, obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders , schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorderand personality disorder can begin or escalate when a woman is pregnant or in her infant’s first year. They can have a damaging effect on family life, and in the worst cases, impact on babies’ health and welfare.
Evidence shows that the vast majority of these illnesses are preventable and treatable, and with the right support, the negative effects on families can be avoided.
Sally Hogg, author of the NSPCC report, said: “The Mother and Baby Unit at Royal Bethlem Hospital provides excellent support for mothers suffering from perinatal mental illnesses and their babies. They do fantastic work to help mums to care for and bond with their babies, which helps ensure these children have the best possible start in life.
“It is crucial that more units like this are made available across the country for all families who need them, as without access to specialist units such as this some mothers don’t get the right help and can be separated from their babies, which is traumatic for the whole family.”
For more information on the NSPCC report:
Read Susan’s story here
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