By Nikki Preston and Amy Wiggins

Waikato midwives are leaving the profession in droves, leaving pregnant women unable to find a trained maternity carer.

Long hours, burnout and unsatisfactory pay are blamed for 33 midwives quitting in the last year. Twelve more will quit this year, and four next year, according to a recent survey by the Waikato DHB.

The survey went to 163 LMCs (lead maternity carers) registered with the Waikato DHB and 123 responded.

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Traditionally midwives have been hard to find around December and January. But a large number of midwives were stopping before summer will add to the annual shortage.

Michelle Sutherland, director of Women's and Children's Health at Waikato District Health Board, said the board was working on a plan for adequate staffing over this period.

Part-time and casual staff would be offered the chance to be involved in primary birthing, midwives who were not currently practising would be approached and the DHB community midwifery team would be enlarged to meet demand.

The board was advising women who could not find a LMC to use the Find Your Midwife website and engage with their GP for the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy. A community midwife at hospital would be available as a back-up.

"We are absolutely very aware of the needs over that Christmas period and will continue to keep planning and doing the very best that we can," Sutherland said.

Waterford Birth Centre director Christine Barbour estimated about 800 women could find themselves without an LMC over the summer.

The New Zealand College of Midwives midwifery adviser Alison Eddy was extremely concerned about the shortages, which had come from midwives working hard and not being valued.

"The goodwill has just run out really," Eddy said.

Waikato was the tip of an iceberg, with Auckland and rural areas facing shortages, she said.

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"We've never really seen the level of distress before that we have."

Midwives are now removing their details from the "Find Your Midwife" website after being swamped with calls from desperate pregnant woman who cannot not find one.

Christina Campbell, a Hamilton midwife of 20 years, has stopped answering calls from people she didn't know because it was devastating not being able to help them. Some days she received between five and 20 calls.

"There's quite a lot of depressed women ringing trying to find a midwife and desperately wanting me to tell them if I have any friends or anyone and to tell you the truth, I don't know who to recommend anymore. A lot of the ones that were around me have gone.

"I'm just really concerned about women and babies being put at risk from not having the quality care that we normally provide."

Many of the LMCs leaving were either moving to Australia, taking up roles at the hospital or changing careers completely.

Hamilton midwife Donna Penu, a midwife for eight years, will deliver her last baby in the Waikato in November before heading to Brisbane to work for better pay and conditions. And she is not alone - four of the five midwives she works with at the Kotahi practice are also quitting.

"We work no more than 12 hours over there (Australia) whereas here as a LMC we can work 24 hours and I feel it's unsafe. I've done it for a long time and I'm not doing it any more. I've run myself down, I've burnt myself out.

"We don't get paid for a lot of the things we do when women are in labour. We go and assess them in the middle of the night, we don't actually get paid for those little assessments ... It's just not feasible.

Another midwife, who is also leaving the profession, feared the reduction in LMCs would take choices away from women as those under DHB care - including using the hospital's community midwives - had to give birth at hospitals instead of primary birth centres.

She said the DHB would be overloaded between December and February, which could impact the care women received.

"This is not meant to frighten those women, I hope that it helps educate them on the stresses that our maternity system face and if we continue to lose more LMCs this problem will only escalate," she said.

Ministry of Health Workforce New Zealand group manager Claire Austin said some DHBs were have trouble recruiting enough midwives and the MoH was taking it seriously.

A number of initiatives were in place including working with the New Zealand College of Midwives to co-design a new Community Primary Midwifery Funding Model.

Meanwhile midwives still waiting for the 6 per cent increase agreed in May will be back-paid and have it in their pay packets by October 16.

One woman's struggle to find a midwife

Trying to find a midwife left Cheryl Wilkie at her wit's end.

The Hamilton woman called more than 70 midwives, only to be left in tears again and again after each told her they were fully booked.

Wilkie, 27, found out she was nine weeks pregnant with her first child at the start of July and her doctor told her she needed to find a midwife.

Cheryl Wilkie, pictured with partner Johan Bekker, struggled to find a midwife. Photo/Supplied
Cheryl Wilkie, pictured with partner Johan Bekker, struggled to find a midwife. Photo/Supplied

She started by looking online but when everyone she called told her they were not able to take on more clients she approached a local birthing centre. The centre gave her a two-page list of all the registered midwives in Hamilton.

Wilkie called them all - to no avail.

"By the time I was three-quarters of the way down the second page, I was so stressed," she said. "I just didn't know what to do."

She tried the community midwives at the hospital but could not get hold of them and had started calling people in surrounding areas in the hope they may be able to take her.

Finally, a family friend managed to convince her old midwife to take on Wilkie as a client.

"It was such a relief," she said.

Wilkie believed finding out she was pregnant relatively late and being due in January had made the process harder but said she had come across a lot of people who seemed to be in a similar situation.

She said more midwives were needed.

"You have to get in quick or you will miss out," she said. "Midwives feel bad and they are ending up taking on extra people because they feel bad."

Doctors also needed to have a list of midwives they could give out to make it easier and faster for women to find someone.