A London council is believed to be the first to offer extra time off to staff whose babies are born prematurely.
Waltham Forest employees are to receive an extra seven days’ maternity or paternity leave for every week that their baby arrives before term.
The council’s deputy leader, Clyde Loakes, backed a campaign by charity The Smallest Things, which calls for extended leave for all working parents who have premature babies.
It was launched in 2014 by Catriona Ogilvy, 37, a children’s occupational therapist whose sons were both born prematurely. Her second son Samuel, now six, was born at 30 weeks.
She said: “When my son was born 10 weeks early, I had no idea maternity leave would begin the very next day — months before we could bring him home.
“Mothers like me wait days, if not weeks, to hold their babies for the first time — they lose precious time to bond and experience higher levels of mental health difficulties following the trauma of neonatal intensive care.”
Under current laws, maternity leave begins the day after birth, regardless of whether the baby is premature. A “normal” pregnancy ranges from 38 to 42 weeks. Babies are classed as premature if born before 37 weeks.
One baby in eight is born prematurely, and is likely to remain in hospital until its original due date. More than half of mothers whose babies are in neonatal intensive care experience anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The campaign petition has 138,570 signatures and is being championed in Parliament by Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, through the Maternity and Paternity Leave (Premature Birth) Bill.
He said: “The emotional and financial stress of balancing employment and care for a baby who is born too soon or too sick can be overwhelming.”
The scheme starts next month. Mr Loakes said: “Instead of waiting for Parliament to get its act together, we, as a Labour council, should show some leadership on such a small but incredibly important matter.”
A pilot scheme at the council has also enabled 80 per cent of expectant mothers to know their midwife in advance, compared with the national average of 12 per cent.
Women having their first or second baby with the Neighbourhood Midwives initiative have experienced fewer interventions during birth. All have breastfed from birth, with two thirds continuing to do so after six to eight weeks.
NHS England wants all pregnant women to have a named midwife by 2020/21. It says “continuity of carer” could contribute to the prevention of about 600 stillbirths each year.