Newborns could be diverted from care proceedings if more time is given to pre-birth assessments where there are safeguarding concerns, according to a review published today.

A currently shortened window for pre-birth assessment is one of four messages of 'immediate relevance' identified in the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory's rapid evidence and case law review.

The observatory, which was set up by the Nuffield Foundation, will now get to work on developing the first 'evidence-informed' guidelines for professionals, including judges, to understand why infants are being taken into care and explore preventative measures.

Local authorities can intervene during pregnancy if there are safeguarding concerns. Research published by the observatory last year showed that the number of newborns for whom care proceedings were issued more than doubled over a decade.

Given the vulnerability of infants and their mothers in the immediate post-natal period, today's report says issuing care proceedings at or close to birth is fraught with moral, ethical and legal challenges. Without effective, timely assessment and support during pregnancy, 'intervention at birth is likely to be poorly planned and can result in instability for the new baby and huge distress for family members. Despite the complexity surrounding this practice, there is scant reference to either pre-birth assessment or removals at birth in national statutory guidance'.

Today's review says a shortened assessment window appears to be due to unborn babies being considered a lower priority than other children. There is insufficient time for parents and professionals to make or support changes, promote the health and wellbeing of the unborn child and potentially divert cases from care proceedings.

Guidelines will be developed over the next 18 months by researchers at the University of Lancaster and the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford. They will be piloted in eight local authorities and health trusts over six months, in at least 30 child protection cases. The aim is for the guidance to be adopted by local and health authorities, the police and judges.

Lisa Harker, the observatory's director, said: 'Over the past decade there has been a sharp rise in infants in care proceedings, with marked regional variation in the number of cases. In this context, the observatory is working in partnership with local authorities to understand the reasons behind these increases and variations, and to support the development of good practice.'