The Lost Mother's project: Imprisoned pregnant women undergoing mandatory separation from their newborn babies experience compounded punishments and a uniquely painful prison experience

Natalie Avlonitis, Laura Abbott

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review

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Title: Lost Mothers Project – Preliminary Findings


In the UK, the numbers of pregnant women in prison are not routinely collated, but estimations suggest that 6-7% of the female prison population are at varying stages of pregnancy, and approximately 100 babies are born to incarcerated women each year (Abbott, 2018). There are no exact data of the numbers of new-born babies removed from their mother at or soon after birth. However, accounts from qualitative research of women being mandatorily separated from their new-born babies demonstrate a deep sense of loss (Abbott, Scott and Thomas, 2021) and increased adverse mental health outcomes due to the trauma of separation (O’Malley and Baldwin, 2019). Furthermore, the experience of pregnancy in prison can be isolating and frightening, as pregnant women in prison experience higher levels of miscarriage and pregnancy complications (Davies, Hutchings and Keeble, 2022). This study explores the experiences of women who undergo mandatory separation of new-born babies in prison. Additionally, it is the first project to link the professions of social work, health visiting, midwifery and criminal justice staff, with the experiences of women who have been in prison, at the heart of the research and in understanding their care needs and experiences. This study therefore aims to:
• Explore the effects of mandatory separation of imprisoned women from their babies.
• Bring together professionals from health, social care and prisons to propose new guidance to actively support women.
• Progress an empirically grounded conceptual framework for understanding the sociology of loss through mandatory separation of babies from mothers in prison, adding to the overall sociology of loss and grief.


This research utilises qualitative semi-structured interviews of the key professionals involved with pregnant women who have Criminal Justice System involvement. Women who have been, or who are in the process of being separated from their babies, are offered an in-depth face-to-face interview. Thematic analysis is used to analyse the data collected.


Although the research is still ongoing, preliminary findings from the research project, specifically from interviews with women with lived experience and midwifery professionals, indicate that women who experience mandatory separation of babies within prison settings experience health and care inequalities which are compounded by their incarceration and social care intervention. Specifically, emergent themes resulting from the data around mental health, stigma, lack of joined up working practices from professionals, all indicate that pregnant women who are in prison and experience mandatory separation, experience disparate and variable levels of care and support from the state and independent care providers. Further data collected from interviews with other health, social care and prison professionals will develop these preliminary findings and emerging themes.

Impact and Implementation

The impact of this research is far reaching in terms of developing understandings of the experiences of pregnant women in prison who experience mandatory separation, as well as the care they are provided. This in turn provides an evidence base for the development of guidance to better support women experiencing mandatory separation in prison that is rooted in the lived experience of women and supported by professionals’ understandings of care and support.


This research project is supported by the charity Birth Companions and their Lived Experience team, who are consultants to the project. The project advisory board consists of women with lived experience, health and social work professionals, academics, third sector organisations and a member of parliament.


Abbott, L.J., 2018. The incarcerated pregnancy: an ethnographic study of perinatal women in English prisons. University of Hertfordshire.UK.

Abbott, L., Scott, T. and Thomas, H., 2023. Compulsory separation of women prisoners from their babies following childbirth: Uncertainty, loss and disenfranchised grief. Sociology of Health & Illness, 45(5), pp.971-988.

Davies, M., Hutchings, R., & Keeble, E. Inequality on the Inside: Using hospital data to understand the key health care issues for women in prison. Research report, Nuffield Trust

O’Malley, S., & Baldwin, L. (2019). Mothering interrupted: Mother-child separation via incarceration in England and Ireland. In C. Beyer, & A. Robertson (Eds.), Mothers without their children. Demeter Press.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 Mar 2024
EventNIHR Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs) Inequalities and Prevention Research Showcase - The British Library, Knowledge Centre, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 Mar 202314 Mar 2023


ConferenceNIHR Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs) Inequalities and Prevention Research Showcase
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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