New research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that babies born at the weekend in NHS hospitals in England are at a slightly higher risk of dying within the first seven days of life than those born during the week. 

Researchers from the Department of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial College London looked at 1.3 million births in NHS hospitals in England over a two year period (1 April 2010 to 31 March 2012). Their findings show that the perinatal mortality rate in English NHS hospitals was 7% higher at weekends. During the week only 0.9 per 1,000 of babies born passed away during their first week of life, while the figure rose to 7.3 per 1,000 babies at a weekend. 

Tuesday has the lowest perinatal mortality rate. The researchers estimated that, if all the days of the week were similar to Tuesday, there would be 770 fewer newborn deaths per year. 

The researchers said that, although the mortality rates identified in newborns were low, the difference between the weekday and weekend rate was significant and raised fresh concerns about standards of care at the weekend. Nevertheless, the researchers emphasised they could find "no consistent association between outcomes and staffing". They said: "Unless managers and practitioners work to better understand and tackle the problems raised in this paper, health outcomes for mothers and babies are likely to continue to be influenced by the day of delivery." 

Commenting on the study's conclusions, Dr David Richmond, the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, emphasised that no definitive conclusions could be drawn from the study's results. He said: "Adequate out-of-hours senior staffing remains a key issue in maternity care. This includes appropriate staff training and supervision, ensuring good outcomes outside normal working hours and effective planning and risk management. More robust evidence on the quality of care afforded by different models of labour ward staffing is also required." 

Camilla Wonnacott, associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, said: “We regularly act for bereaved parents who have lost a child in the perinatal period. The death of a longed-for child in these circumstances has lasting effects on the parents, on siblings and on the wider family.  

“Although this study did not find a correlation between staffing levels in maternity units and higher mortality in newborns, it has highlighted an area of NHS care that needs much more more thought.”