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Health & Wellbeing

‘They need to get them open’: Mums take aim at NHS Grampian over birthing pool closures

A lack of NHS birthing pools has meant limited options for pregnant mothers in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire and frustrations are mounting.
Andy Morton
Becca Craig was unable to use an NHS birthing pool for her labour last month. Image: Becca Craig/NHS Grampian
Becca Craig was unable to use an NHS birthing pool for her labour last month. Image: Becca Craig/NHS Grampian

Demand is through the roof at Stephanie Macpherson’s new venture. But she is not happy.

The 32-year-old sub sea engineer took over Grampian Pool Hire in July. The project – which is entirely volunteer-run – provides free birthing pools for home water births.

Bookings have always been steady; the scheme launched in 2018 and midwives and other pregnancy professionals often recommend its inflatable pools as an alternative to the three NHS-run birthing pools in Aberdeen and the Shire.

One of Grampian Pool Hire’s first home birthing pools when the project launched in 2018. Image: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson

But at the time Stephanie took over Grampian Pool Hire, all NHS birthing pools – one in Aberdeen Maternity Hospital (AMH), and two each in Peterhead’s and Inverurie’s maternity wards – were shut.

Since then, only Peterhead’s pools have reopened, and that was on Monday.

Frustrated mothers have been forced to look for alternatives. Many have come to Stephanie.

“It’s been so busy,” she sighs. “It’s a lot more work than I thought it was going to be.”

An increase in popularity of water births

Water births are just one of the ways mums can give birth in the NHS. However their popularity has increased in recent years as they’ve been shown to aid pain relief and even shorten labour.

“There’s a wealth of studies and evidence to show the benefits of laboring in water,” says Arleen Cameron, a co-founder of community interest group Aberdeen Birth Collective.

Arleen Cameron from the Aberdeen Birth Collective. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

The closure of the pools has left a large hole in NHS Grampian’s birthing coverage. Dr Gray’s in Elgin has one birthing pool, but the Moray hospital is too far for many to travel.

“People are having an absolute panic that they’re not going to be able to have the birth that they want in the setting they want,” Arleen says.

‘They need to get the pools open’

Becca Craig is one of the mothers frustrated at the closures.

The Portlethen dance teacher desperately wanted a water birth for her second child after a first labour ‘on land’.

But despite putting down ‘water birth’ as the preferred option in her birth plan, the 29-year-old discovered earlier in her pregnancy that she wouldn’t get one.

“They basically gave me a point blank: ‘They won’t be up and running’,” she says. “So there’s nothing really. Elgin has a pool but it’s so far away from where I live and obviously far away from Aberdeen Maternity Hospital as well.”

Becca Craig at her baby shower before giving birth last month. Image: Supplied by Becca Craig

Becca’s daughter was born four weeks ago at AMH in what the delighted mum says was a mostly uncomplicated labour.

A home water birth was not possible for Becca even though NHS Grampian midwives happily accommodate them – her home just doesn’t have space for it.

But she says that if she’d been able to use the birthing pool at AMH she may not have needed the epidural she ended up getting.

“They need to get [the pools] open,” she says.

“It needs to be a choice for people who don’t want to have drugs and who don’t want to be stuck with needles. Because I didn’t, but out of sheer desperation, that’s what I ended up with.”

Leaks and legionella – why the birthing pools are closed

Aberdeen Maternity Hospital’s pool has been closed since April, when a leak in the labour ward caused rooms in the midwife unit to shut. At the time, hospital chiefs said repairs would take six weeks however more issues were uncovered and work may have to be carried out on plumbing and ventilation .

Meanwhile, plans to move maternity care from AMH to the under-construction Baird Family Hospital still await a confirmed opening date for the new building.

Peterhead Community Hospital’s birthing pools closed after a legionella outbreak in February.

The maternity unit reopened in March but the birthing pools had to wait to pass stringent water quality tests. NHS confirmed on Tuesday those tests have been completed and that Peterhead’s birthing pools are open again.

In Inverurie, the situation is more complicated. The two pools at the Inverurie Community Midwife Unit were closed in 2020 because of an installation problem. The unit had only opened just over a year before.

NHS Grampian on Tuesday said that water quality issues remain at the Inverurie pool and that resolving them could be a “lengthy process”. Each test of the water takes “several weeks” and three must be passed in a row, it said.

The birthing pools at Peterhead Community Hospital were shut because of a legionella outbreak. Image: Scott Baxter/DC Thomson

The pool at Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin is currently open, but was shut for two months last year when a leak from a drainage pipe flooded out into a corridor and into a theatre downstairs.

The pool still faces limitations – the maternity unit at Dr Gray’s lacks key staff such as consultant-level obstetricians.

If a birth runs into problems, mothers are sent to the maternity hospital in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.

‘It is causing a lot of stress and anxiety’

Kathryn Masterson from Grampian Maternity Voices Partnership (GVMP) says the closures are far from ideal.

Kathryn is the chair of GMVP, an independent advocacy group that works with NHS Grampian. Her two sons were born in a pool at AMH and she is a strong supporter of water births.

She warns that the closure of the pools is limiting birth options for mothers-to-be across Aberdeen and the Shire.

“It is causing a lot of stress and anxiety for women and their families,” she says. “And stress for a pregnant person is not good for themselves, and it’s also not good for the baby.”

‘We sincerely apologise for any distress’

In a letter to NHS Grampian staff on Tuesday, Katie Colville, associate director of midwifery, said she shares the “concerns regarding the impact of the lack of birthing pool facilities we currently have”.

“We sincerely apologise for any distress felt by women at the moment in the lead up to their labour,” she continued. “We are seeking to reassure families that while a water birth may not be possible for them in Inverurie or Aberdeen, we remain committed to providing high standards of midwife-led care and therapeutic approaches across Grampian.

“We would encourage anyone with concerns to discuss these, and their options for
place of birth, with their midwife.”

Not enough home birthing pools to meet demand

Back at Grampian Pool Hire, Stephanie has already made changes to cope with the extra demand, which she puts squarely down to the NHS Grampian birthing pool closures.

A home birthing pool in Aberdeen. Image: Supplied by Arleen Cameron

When she took over in July, the service had five pools.

Since then, Stephanie – thanks to donations from supporters and past users – has upped her inventory to eight, including a large pool with a volume equal to four bathtubs.

In her two months at the helm, 11 people have hired a pool and six babies have been born.

Stephanie took over Grampian Pool Hire in July. Image: Supplied by Stephanie Macpherson

But despite the increase in pools – and Stephanie’s plans to buy a ninth – demand has reached the point where she has been forced to turn people away.

“I do my best to get everyone in,” says Stephanie, who volunteered to take over the service after using it for her second pregnancy.

“I try but it’s not nice, not being able to help people.”