Babies are dying needlessly due to overstretched maternity services, failures to adhere to national safety standards, and persistent social and racial inequalities, charities have warned.
More than 5,000 babies are stillborn or die within the first four weeks of life every year in the UK, according to a report by baby loss charities Sands and Tommy’s.
Significant progress has been made since 2010, when the number was closer to 6,500, but the report says that in 2021/22 nearly a fifth of stillbirths were potentially avoidable, had better care been provided.
There has also been little progress in reducing the number of premature births, which have been around 7% and 8% of all births since 2010.
Preterm births are an important risk factor: in 2020, three-quarters of neonatal deaths were among babies born prematurely.
Robert Wilson, head of Sands and Tommy’s joint policy unit, said: “Losing a baby throughout pregnancy or shortly after birth is not just ‘one of those things’ that must be accepted.
“Too often losses are occurring because of care that is not in line with nationally agreed standards.
“There are also significant workforce pressures, which are affecting the ability to deliver safe care.”
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In England, the government’s target is to halve the number of baby deaths by 2025, compared to 2010 levels but charities say more work needs to be done to achieve that.
There are also concerns about the lack of similar targets in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The report by Sands and Tommy’s said that last year 38% of maternity units were rated inadequate or requiring improvement by regulator the Care Quality Commission.
It also set out persistent inequalities, with black British babies almost twice as likely to die within their first four weeks, compared to white babies.
In the country’s most deprived areas, stillbirth rates are almost two times higher than those in the least deprived, and the difference has widened since 2010.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We are investing £165m annually to grow and support our NHS maternity staff and improve neonatal care, developing a new core curriculum for professionals working in maternity and neonatal services, and introducing 33 maternal mental health services across England by next March.
“We have also set up a maternity disparities taskforce to tackle disparities for mothers and babies, while also reducing maternal and neonatal deaths.”