A crisis in the care of sick and premature babies is worsening, a charity warned today.

Staff shortages mean many ill newborn babies are being transported hundreds of miles across the country for treatment, according to BLISS, the premature baby charity.

Research by the organisation found that 90% of intensive care units had been forced to turn away admissions because of a lack of nursing staff.

This was an increase of 10% on last year's figures.

The report found that three babies a day were transferred - some more than 126 miles away.

Many seriously ill babies were being treated in special care rather than intensive care units because of staff shortages.

And only 3% of units were operating with the recommended one nurse per baby intensive care, according to the survey.

Rob Williams, chief executive of BLISS, said: "This is an issue of patient safety and it is unacceptable that a life saving service is unable to provide the appropriate level of care for vulnerable babies because of financial constraints.

"The most pressing need is for central government to commit to the recommended nursing standards of one nurse looking after one baby in intensive care. It is therefore vital to implement this standard to boost nursing numbers."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "The Department of Health has encouraged the development of 24 local neonatal networks to provide the safest and most effective service for mothers and babies.

"As, on average, a quarter of neonatal intensive care cots are empty at any given time, the creation of these networks has helped local areas assist each other when demand is greatest.

"These networks provide as much of this care locally as is possible, but there will always be occasions when transfer to a more specialist unit outside the home network may offer better outcomes.

"Advanced technology and healthcare expertise has lead to greater numbers of these premature babies being born alive and surviving. The infant mortality rate in England and Wales is at its lowest ever level - 5.1 per 1,000 live births in 2004."

Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Sandra Gidley said: "It is extremely concerning that mothers and their babies are being forced to travel long distances to get the special care they need and with some not getting it at all.

"Neonatal care services are under pressure from NHS trusts to make financial savings and because of this, staffing and equipment shortages have been severely neglected.

"The Government should take immediate action to radically improve the current situation in which agreed standards are only met in 3% of units. Life is too precious to gamble with in this way."