The majority of specialist units for premature and sick babies are overstretched and dangerously understaffed, according to a report.
Almost 90% of NHS intensive care wards for babies in England and Wales are “under incredible pressure”, putting the safety of the sickest babies at risk.
The study, from the charity Bliss, described a “severe shortage” of neonatal nurses and doctors and said units are failing to meet national standards on safe staffing levels.
The charity’s campaigns director, Helen Kirrane, told Sky News: “It’s clear this is not a priority area, as far as we can see, and there’s no talk about the overall funding being increased.
“Unless the overall funding package is increased the services won’t be able to meet the standards and we’ll be no further towards meeting the care that the babies need.
“These services are running at above safe occupancy levels.”
Overall, 86% of neonatal intensive care units were found to be consistently caring for many more babies than considered safe, the report said.
In special care baby units, 33% were not meeting safe staffing levels while some 855 babies had to be transferred between hospitals due to a shortage of staffed cots rather than medical need.
Fiona Smith, professional lead for children and young people’s nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Major progress has been made in recent years in the treatment of very premature babies and many people are alive today who would simply not have survived in previous decades.
“This makes it especially stark that these advances could be put at risk by a shortage of expert staff.
“That the care of very tiny, vulnerable babies could be jeopardised by hard-pressed staff being pushed beyond their limits should be a matter of great concern for the NHS.”
Professor Edward Baker, deputy chief inspector of hospitals at the Care Quality Commission, said the quality of neonatal care was part of a current review.
He added: “We welcome this report from Bliss. It is right to highlight the problems that staffing can have on the quality of neonatal care, and this echoes what we found on some of our inspections. Where we have found concerns we have told trusts to make improvements.
“We expect trusts to look at staffing in a sophisticated way focused on the quality of care, patient safety and efficiency, rather than just crude numbers and ratios of one group of staff.”