Six out of seven new mothers in England are not getting a checkup of their health six weeks after giving birth, despite such appointments becoming a new duty on the NHS last year.
Just 15% of women who have recently had a child are having a dedicated consultation with a GP to discuss their physical and mental health, according to a survey by the parenting charity National Childbirth Trust (NCT).
The requirement was introduced last year to boost maternal health and especially to try to identify women having psychological problems linked to childbirth such as postnatal depression. The appointments are separate to the established six-week check of a baby’s progress.
However, 85% of the 893 mothers in England whom Survation interviewed last month for NCT said their appointments were mainly or equally about the baby’s health and they did not get the chance to talk to the GP about their mental wellbeing.
“It is extremely disappointing to find that only 15% of new mothers are getting an appointment focused on their wellbeing and a quarter of mums are not being asked about their mental health at all,” said NCT’s chief executive, Angela McConville.
Family doctors in England have been contractually obliged and paid since last April to see women six to eight weeks after they give birth to assess their physical and mental health. The change followed a campaign to improve detection of women who are suffering from anxiety, depression, postpartum psychosis or other condition linked to pregnancy and birth.
Elizabeth Duff, NCT’s senior policy adviser, said: “These meetings are meant to be their chance to talk about their recovery from the birth and how they’re feeling emotionally. But if new mums don’t have that appointment their mental health can go downhill quite fast and get to the stage where they can’t look after the baby, it affects their relationship or they can’t return to work. We are looking at a potentially devastating impact on a whole family if a mum’s mental health goes untreated.”
Research by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance has found that more mothers than usual have been struggling during the pandemic because restrictions on social contact means they have been denied support from family and friends, which has caused more anxiety and loneliness.
Vicki Rice, a new mum from Canterbury, told NCT: “I did have a six-week check with a GP but it was over the phone and felt more like a tick-box exercise than a caring conversation. I was asked if my scar was OK and if I thought I had postnatal depression, nothing more. I was struggling with my mental health at the time and in tears most days but didn’t feel able to discuss it. It felt like they were trying to get the phone call over with as quickly as possible.”
Other women told NCT they felt that questions about their mental health were “squeezed in” at the end of the consultation. Kate Silverton, from Dorset, said that when she had a six-week check “the only question I was asked about myself was ‘you’re all right, aren’t you?’, which wasn’t very helpful. I wanted to discuss mental heath but didn’t feel able to do so in the circumstances.”
The NHS said GPs should ensure women had their dedicated checkup. Dr Nikki Kanani, NHS England’s medical director of primary care, said: “The introduction of six-week postnatal health checks on the NHS for new mums was a significant step, and all GP teams are expected to have these important discussions with new mothers.”