NHS maternity units are colluding with commercial companies to make thousands of pounds by persuading new mothers to buy photographs of their babies and by selling on their personal information.
The companies are given exclusive access to the wards, where they encourage women to have their photos taken with their babies hours after they have given birth and later charge them from £20 per print.
The largest of the companies, Bounty, also buys the right to distribute information packs to new mothers, with free samples of nappies and creams. The packs include the government claim form for child benefit, making them appear official.
Bounty pays about £5,000 for the exclusive right to distribute the packs in a large maternity hospital and can later sell on names and addresses of new mothers who supply them to marketing organisations, for about £1 each. Mothers are then phoned at home by organisations selling insurance and similar services.
The National Childbirth Trust (NCT), which disclosed the figures to The Independent, said it was "totally unacceptable" for new mothers to be targeted in this manner. Allowing "strangers with cameras" into maternity wards was "extraordinary", it said.
A survey by the NCT of 1,000 parents found 95 per cent had been offered the packs, of whom half had been asked for their contact details. Two-thirds had been approached by a photographer and a third of these had felt "some pressure" to have their photograph taken.
Half said commercial photographers should not be allowed access to mothers in hospital and the same proportion were unhappy about their personal data being sold to third parties.
An overwhelming majority called for a halt to the practice. The NCT's chief executive, Belinda Phipps, said: "We find it gobsmacking that commercial companies are given free rein to do this at a time when women have just given birth and are at their most vulnerable. We have had cases of photographers asking women, prompting the women to burst into tears because their baby is unwell and in the special-care unit. In other cases, photographers have sat waiting for women to come out of the shower, compromising their privacy and dignity."
Ms Phipps said women expected to see only health professionals on the wards, so sometimes mistook sales representatives for hospital staff and might have disclosed personal information. She said it was difficult to tackle because maternity units had come to rely on the income from the companies. Janet Fyle, adviser to the Royal College of Midwives, said: "We have always objected to Bounty going in and offering these packs." The NHS Confederation, representing NHS trusts, said trusts often entered into commercial arrangements to provide services and many patients valued them. "However, people must be clear what is being offered and by whom," it said.
Bounty said: "Bounty operates respectfully on the basis of choice and if the vast majority of mums didn't agree, we wouldn't be able to provide the services that we have for over 50 years."
Case study: 'I just cried. They had taken advantage of me'
Frances Walters, 29
Dora Walters was less than 48 hours old when a woman photographer entered the room in Gloucester Royal Hospital where Frances was breastfeeding her.
"She didn't apologise for interrupting us. She just came in, announced she was 'the hospital photographer', brought in her equipment and set it up. I had been exhausted by the birth – I had not slept for four days – and I was overwhelmed physically and emotionally. Although I signed the forms I was in no position to give informed consent in that state."
The woman helped Frances dress the baby and propped her up several times as she took the pictures. Then she left. "After she had gone I just cried and cried. I felt taken advantage of." Frances also objected to the packs Bounty hands out. " I have had lots of calls from organisations since trying to sell me things."
Her husband Brian complained to the hospital: "I told them they had let a complete stranger with no medical training come in and manhandle our baby."
Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: "As a result of the concerns raised by Mr Walters, the company concerned has reviewed the training of their staff."