Inspectors found a cluster of six serious incidents where babies were born in a poor condition after a whistleblower reported concerns about safety in a hospital maternity unit.
The Care Quality Commission has rated maternity services at Basildon University Hospital as inadequate overall following an unannounced inspection in June.
The watchdog has issued a warning notice to Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the services, ordering urgent improvements to ensure mothers and babies are safe.
The trust said its services are “safe to use” and apologised for not making improvements “quickly enough”.
The department had previously been rated as requiring improvement following an inspection in February 2019.
The CQC said in its report that it identified six serious incidents in March and April this year as a result of “information received and a subsequent review of the trust’s incident reporting data”.
Babies were born in a poor condition and then transferred for cooling therapy, which can be offered for newborn babies with brain injury caused by oxygen shortage during birth.
The CQC said it could not provide further information on the individual cases as it may identify the people involved.
During its inspection the regulator found several concerns including that high-risk women were giving birth in a low-risk area.
There were not enough staff with the relevant skills and experience to keep women safe and provide the right care and treatment, and “dysfunctional” multidisciplinary team working had “impacted on the increased number of safety incidents reported”.
Incidents were not always graded correctly according to the level of harm, lessons learnt were not always implemented, and care records were not always securely stored, the report said.
The CQC’s chief inspector of hospitals, Professor Ted Baker, said: “All staff we met during our inspection were welcoming, friendly and helpful.
“However, it was evident that they were concerned about the recent cluster of serious incidents and wanted to improve the care they provided to women and babies.
“We have issued a warning notice requiring the trust to make urgent improvements to ensure mothers and babies are safe.”
Clare Panniker, chief executive of Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It is so important that mums feel safe when they come to us to have their babies, and that our staff feel supported to deliver the very best care.
“These are the two areas we’ve been focusing on and have taken urgent and significant action to address.
“We know that our services are safe to use, but I’m sorry that we didn’t make improvements quickly enough.
“Our dedicated staff had already begun to make changes before the CQC visited us, and the report recognises that a raft of improvements had been put in place.
“We have a new leadership team, invested £1.8 million in recruiting 29 more midwives and two additional consultants, opened three more delivery beds for high-risk women, and created a triage service.
“We have also overhauled our processes and training to ensure that we offer women the very best care and support and that we are addressing the issues raised by the inspectors.”