Poor care in NHS maternity units could be causing 600 preventable stillbirths a year, an official report suggests.
A major project to improve services at 19 English hospitals led to stillbirth rates falling by a fifth, NHS England said.
Simple changes – such as improved monitoring of babies during labour and tracking babies that were growing too slowly in the womb – had an immediate impact, an independent review found.
Poor care in NHS maternity units in England could be causing 600 preventable stillbirths a year, an official report suggests
The assessment, led by experts at Manchester University, found 161 babies’ lives were saved in the two years after the improvements were made.
If rolled out nationally, they estimate that would equate to 600 deaths avoided every year.
There are currently around 665,000 babies born in England each year, but despite falling to its lowest rate in 20 years, there are around 3,000 stillbirths, with one in every 200 babies stillborn.
While many nations have managed to slash their stillbirth rates in recent years, Britain has lagged behind.
In a league table of progress on the issue, the UK in 2016 was placed a shocking 114th out of 164 countries around the world.
And Britain was ranked 21st out of 35 of the world’s wealthy, developed nations for stillbirth rates.
The poor performance triggered a major review of the way maternity units handle stillbirth risk – and doctors concluded many of the tragedies were down to basic gaps in monitoring and treatment.
The NHS introduced a pilot programme, called the Saving Babies Lives Care Bundle, which was trialled at 19 hospitals.
Crucially, there was a major increase in the detection of small babies, with 59 per cent more low-weight babies spotted early in pregnancy.
Mothers were also taught of the importance of being aware their own baby’s movement in the womb – with more women going to hospital if there was a problem.
Testing for smoking in pregnancy also had an impact, the researchers said.
The success of the programme revealed in today’s report had led to the decision to roll it out across the country.
Dr Matthew Jolly, national clinical director for maternity and women’s health at NHS England, said: ‘These findings show significant progress in the reduction of stillbirth rates.
‘This is thanks to the dedicated maternity staff who have developed and implemented the clinical measures we recommend as national best practice.
‘We know more can be done to avoid the tragedy of stillbirth and as we develop the ten-year plan for the NHS, we want to build on the progress we’ve made to make maternity services in England among the safest in the world.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock added: ‘There is nothing more devastating than losing a child so this improvement is welcome and testament to the incredible NHS maternity staff who do everything they can to improve care; saving many babies’ lives as a result.
‘We still have more to do but these results demonstrate really positive progress towards our ambition to halve the rates of stillbirth, neonatal death and maternal death by 2025.’
Professor Alexander Heazell of the University of Manchester, said: ‘This large scale evaluation of the NHS England Saving Babies Lives Care Bundle shows that the interventions to reduce cigarette smoking, detect small for gestational age babies, inform women about reduced fetal movements and improve monitoring of babies during labour, have been increasingly implemented in the early adopter maternity units.
‘Over the same time period stillbirths have fallen by 20 per cent, meaning 161 fewer stillbirths in the participating units.’