Mothers who give birth to premature babies are calling for their statutory maternity leave to be extended, due to the lost bonding time at home if their child spends weeks in hospital before being able to leave.

The statutory maternity leave of 52 weeks begins for mothers of premature babies the day after the child is born and women can take this leave any time up to 11 weeks before their due date. However, if the baby is born early, it begins the day after the birth.

MPs will now discuss whether to extend the leave, after an online petition supporting an extra week’s leave for every week parents of premature babies have to spend waiting in hospital received more than 100,000 signatures.

The Smallest Things campaign was launched by Catriona Ogilvy after her first son was born 10 weeks prematurely.

Ms. Ogilvy said: "I am so glad it is finally coming to Parliament. We will need to secure a full debate, hopefully before Christmas, but this is a good step.”

In the UK, up to 40,000 babies are born early in every year, whilst the average stay in hospital after the baby is born is eight weeks.

Aye Limbin Glassey, employment law partner at Shakespeare Martineau, said employers must tread carefully when addressing this or risk alienating staff.

She added: “When workers have children prematurely, they are under an enormous amount of strain dealing with the baby and even when their child is well enough to leave hospital care, they will have to face the stark reality that a significant chunk of their statutory leave and pay has been used up.

“This seems harsh and it is understandable that parents in this position would feel that they need more flexibility and support. However, under current laws, maternity leave and pay automatically starts the day after a premature baby is born and employers are under no obligation to extend this.”

If the amendment, which is due to be proposed in the Commons later this week, is made law, employers could be obliged to delay the start of maternity leave and pay to begin only after the period for which the premature baby is under hospital care.

Ms. Glassey added: "While this would be popular with parents, it would place considerable pressure on some employers – particularly smaller businesses that might struggle to keep jobs open for workers for a longer period of time and would undoubtedly feel the added financial strain.

“Pending any change in the law, we recommend that employers treat the issue with sensitivity and, where possible, consider flexible working requests to allow extra time at home for parents of premature babies. While employers can decline such requests if there is a clear business reason to do so, they need to be aware that they could lose valuable members of staff. Even if requests for flexible working are declined, employers should show concern for workers through the process and be aware of how any extra pressure on their home life could impact on their performance at work.”