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Parents of premature babies are being encouraged to take the lead in providing their child’s hospital care under a pioneering initiative launched in London.

The project at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea and St Mary’s hospitals has been imported from Canada, where it has been found to improve the child’s brain function, weight gain and allow them to be discharged home earlier.

In a UK first, parents are taught how to monitor, wash and feed their child – including how to check nasogastric tubes – and administer medication under the guidance of health professionals. They also take responsibility for updating the consultant on their child’s progress during daily ward rounds.

The first five babies have been recruited at Queen Charlotte’s, in Acton. Parents said it was “fantastic” and helped them to overcome the shock of having their child born much earlier than planned.

A free iPhone and iPad app provides vital information and allows them to take notes and pictures of their child’s daily development. The IFDC (Integrated Family Delivered Care) app has been downloaded hundreds of times as other hospitals look to copy the initiative, which was funded by Imperial Health Charity and took two years to develop.

Dr Jay Banerjee, a consultant neonatologist at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which runs both hospitals, said the new approach moved away from the perception that premature babies were “too fragile” to be handled by parents.

He said: “We are trying to end this separation between the parents and babies, and ask the parents to look after their baby right from the beginning as part of the care-giving team.

“It encourages the baby’s rate of weight gain, it reduces the duration of their stay in hospital and it may reduce infection rates. It reduces the stress and anxiety of parents.”

About one in 11 babies are born prematurely, or before 37 weeks’ gestation – about 60,000 a year in the UK. Imperial’s two specialist units treat about 1,000 premature babies a year, including some born as early as 23 or 24 weeks.

There is a national shortage of neonatal nurses but the doctors stressed that the project was not about using parents to plug workforce gaps. Parents get involved once their baby is judged “medically stable” and, after training, look after them for six to eight hours a day.

Consultant Dr Aniko Deierl said: “If you have a very engaged parent, they are going to pick up these skills and learn better. This is helping them to take responsibility. We see the parents as part of the neonatal team.”

Vaidya family

Jenny and Alex Vaidya with baby Jack

Alex and Jenny Vaidya’s first child, Jack, was born at Queen Charlotte’s a month ago, aged 29 weeks and five days, when she went into labour suddenly as the couple, from Chiswick, were about to head to France on holiday.

Mr Vaidya, 34, an IT entrepreneur, said: “We were thrown in at the deep end. We had no concept of what this would be like – the NCT classes were thrown out the window. Being able to get involved has helped enormously.”

Mrs Vaidya, 33, a charity fundraising manager, said: “If we were left to having just the last couple of days, when suddenly you were told what to do yourself and then go home, it would be so overwhelming.

“Doing everything from the very beginning means you have got that bond from very early on, and you just feel more confident. You get to know the baby so much better.”

  • An edited version of this article appears in tonight’s Evening Standard.
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