If you're thinking of giving birth in Britain, listen to this

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The Independent Online

It pains a naturally blithe person to become the harbinger of doom, but sometimes even the most arch amongst us find ourselves standing stock still, mouths open in disbelief. This happened to me while I investigated the state of Britain's maternity services for a Channel 4 documentary screened last night, The Truth About Childbirth. At the risk of getting gloomier, every woman in this country who is thinking of having a child in the next decade needs to know the state of our maternity services. Figures released last week by the Royal College of Midwives show that two thirds of heads of midwifery in the UK do not believe they have enough staff, and there are now frequent reports of midwives running between three and five women in labour. This is put in bleak perspective when you consider research by Salford University that linked staff shortages to 70 per cent of the cases they studied involving oxygen deprivation.

It pains a naturally blithe person to become the harbinger of doom, but sometimes even the most arch amongst us find ourselves standing stock still, mouths open in disbelief. This happened to me while I investigated the state of Britain's maternity services for a Channel 4 documentary screened last night, The Truth About Childbirth. At the risk of getting gloomier, every woman in this country who is thinking of having a child in the next decade needs to know the state of our maternity services. Figures released last week by the Royal College of Midwives show that two thirds of heads of midwifery in the UK do not believe they have enough staff, and there are now frequent reports of midwives running between three and five women in labour. This is put in bleak perspective when you consider research by Salford University that linked staff shortages to 70 per cent of the cases they studied involving oxygen deprivation.

And yet there is nothing like the national awareness about the maternity crisis that there is, say, about MRSA, the deadly bacteria found in hospitals. Over the period where staff shortages have been most critical - 2001-2003 - stillbirths have increased significantly. Nobody knows why, but a committee is due to report this year. Which is comforting, isn't it?

If I was irresponsible enough to carry on scaremongering, I would recount all the off-the-record confidences about first-hand experiences I have heard. They lack scientific rigour, so draw your own conclusions. There's the midwife who has witnessed obstetricians using a ventouse to move babies into the birth canal and then allowing trainee midwives to supervise the final delivery; thus the trainees notch up these births as "normal" and put them towards their qualifying tally. Reports of midwives becoming "deskilled" are coincidental.

Then there's the older midwife who tells of a trainee who was recently left in charge of a diabetic mother when the delivery ward was short-staffed, and crippled by emergencies. The trainee failed to monitor the foetal heartbeat correctly, missed clear signs of distress, and the baby was born with severe oxygen deprivation. My friend's sister had to sit with the mother while he died in her arms, and has been racked by stress for months afterwards. She says: "The public will be shocked to know this kind of thing is pretty common."

I know six women close to my age, all of them friends or close acquaintances, who gave birth last year. Three of the babies died at birth. In two cases the parents want to sue the hospitals. But the fact that I know three bereaved mums is itself a statistical blip, an anomaly - which is comforting.

Of the other three more fortunate mums, one had a ventouse delivery, the second her third caesarean, and the third was taken into theatre for an emergency caesarean under general anaesthetic. All six gave birth in London or the South-east, which coincidentally suffers from the worst midwife shortages in the country. But it is comforting to know that the Government expects to see major improvement in at least the next 10 years.

According to Dr Stephen Ladyman MP, the Under-Secretary of State for Community and the minister concerned, it is untrue that the implementation plan for the National Service Framework's maternity policies mainly talk of forming committees and advisory groups. Apparently there are lots of unpublished documents which prove how wrong I am. Silly me, relying on the published ones. It is also excellent news that the Government's new policies focus on "choice". I think we can agree choice is a marvellous thing. If you live in London, where your chances of having a full range of childbirth options are practically nil, you can choose to move to Torbay where they offer home water births and the full gamut.

And you can choose not to have your baby at a busy time - just cross your legs and wait a few weeks. Or wait 10 years, by which time things may have got better. Mind you, I doubt it, because the Royal College of Midwives' staffing figures show that 64 per cent of all midwives are over 40 and the current system sees trained staff quitting at a rate of knots. But this is sensationalism. I implore you to take a more rational approach. You could back my wonderful new maternity policies entitled: "What is wrong with good old-fashioned storks and gooseberry bushes?" Comforting, aren't they.

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