A "key" check-up for new mothers is often being treated as a tick box exercise, a patient champion group has warned. Healthwatch England said the 6-week postnatal checks are "failing" new mothers. It warned many of the assessments are not taking place at all and when they do take place, the majority of women are not satisfied about the level of mental health support.
The check, which is supposed to happen 6 to 8 weeks after a woman has given birth, will see a GP make sure the woman feels well and is recovering properly.
A new poll, shared exclusively with the PA news agency, found 16% of new mothers said they did not received the 6- to 8-week check. Of those who said they had been offered the postnatal check, only 22% said were satisfied with the time their GP spent talking to them about their mental health. Some 15% of the 2700 new mothers surveyed said they had had their 6-week check over the phone.
The patient safety organisation said this could mean that many new parents may find it harder to verbalise their mental health struggles and discuss physical issues.
No Support with Mental Health, 40% Said
Some two-thirds of the women (around 1800) said they had struggled with their mental health during and after pregnancy, according to the poll, which took place between October and December last year. Among these, 41% said they received no support to help with their mental health during and post-pregnancy.
Healthwatch England warned that delays in accessing mental health support can have a significant impact on new parents, with some telling the organisation they struggled to leave the house, bond with their child or maintain relationships.
One single mother from Hampshire said she had never heard of the 6-week check. Amanda Richardson gave birth to a baby girl in July 2020. She suffered from anxiety and developed sleep and eating problems but was never invited to the check-up. An asthma consultant at her local hospital later recognised symptoms of possible postnatal depression and helped secure mental health support for her. She started therapy 18 months after her daughter was born.
"When I was pregnant, I received all the instructions I needed but once the baby was born, I felt on my own," she said.
"When you are a single parent, you don’t have your own support network and don’t get adequate support, it can be very hard. I felt like I was underwater and couldn’t escape.
"If I had had more support at the right time, my mental health would be better."
She added: "The therapy has helped me and I am slowly coming out of the low feeling. My eating has picked up and my sleep is slowly getting better."
Recommendations to Improve the 6-Week Check
Healthwatch has made a series of recommendations to NHS England and local health bodies to help drive improvements in the 6-week check.
Louise Ansari, national director at Healthwatch England, said: "With mental ill health affecting up to a third of new and expectant mums, 6-week postnatal checks are key to assessing their wellbeing after the birth.
"If left untreated, poor mental health can have a devasting impact on new parents and their families.
"Unfortunately, our findings show that although most new mothers and birthing parents are likely to be invited to a postnatal consultation, these are frequently carried out as a tick-box exercise where mental health is not treated as a priority or not assessed at all."
Annie Belasco, head of the parent mental health support charity Pandas Foundation, said: "The findings of Healthwatch England's new research, alongside our own work, tell us that people are still struggling to access the right support at the right time.
"The NHS is not making the most of opportunities to support women with the quality, timely mental health interventions which we know can save lives.
"That's why we need to ensure the experiences of those women who were let down by the system contribute to eliminating barriers and improving support for others."
An NHS spokesperson said: "Record numbers of women are benefiting from specialist perinatal mental health support with 49,000 new mums treated over the last year – up almost a third compared to 2 years ago – with every local health system now having access to a specialist community perinatal mental health team.
"The NHS is working with GPs and patient groups to ensure that all new mums receive a postnatal check covering mental and physical health 6 weeks after giving birth, as is set out in the GP contract with further guidance to be published shortly."
This article contains information from PA Media