WORK to expand Oxford’s neonatal intensive care unit is under way.

The £5.5m expansion of the unit at the John Radcliffe will double the number of cots for desperately-ill new-born babies to 20.

Oxford University Hospitals Trust applied for planning permission for an extension next to the unit – which is the only newborn intensive care unit in the Thames Valley – earlier this year.

The work marks the end of a long campaign to increase the unit.

The news has been welcomed by parents whose babies were treated there and many are already trying to raise funds for the new unit.

Father-of-two Chris Shadbolt, from Clanfield, cycled 400km on a fixed gear bike to raise money for neonatal and foetal medicine to say thanks for the care his son William, now four, and Rupert, one, were given at the unit.

He said: “William was born very early at 25 weeks, and four days after my wife Melanie had been lying in hospital for a week trying to keep him in with the help of the foetal medicine doctors.

“He was 1lb 14oz delivered by an urgent C-section so they could get him out in the best possible condition.

“He spent a total of 108 days in the special care baby unit and came home about a week after his actual due date.

“You actually get a cake and a card from the staff at the 100 day mark, one of the many extra little things they do for the people there for a long time.

“The doctors look back and describe it as a “stormy start” to life. He had various infections, bleeding in his head, a heart operation, lost the toes on his left foot due to a blood clot, but he survived.

“All of this is due to the care he received. Today you wouldn’t look at him and see anything but a happy, healthy, mischievous, four-year-old.”

In 2010 the unit had to turn away 254 seriously-ill mothers and babies due to the lack of room and were treated in other units that, by the trust’s own admission, did ‘not quite meet the standards of the NICU’.

The trust was asked by the South Central Strategic Health Authority to provide the extra cots because it is a regional centre for the Thames Valley, and the last of the money was approved by the Department of Health in April.

The existing unit, which helps more than 200 babies a year, will stay open throughout the expansion, which should be completed next year.

About 120 extremely premature babies were born at the hospital in 2011, the most common reason for a newborn requiring intensive care.

The OUH said: “The extension being built to the existing unit will house a doubling of the number of intensive care cots at the John Radcliffe Hospital from 10 to 20.

“The extension will house 16 of the intensive care cots.

“The cots will be introduced in a phased way in order to match demand and to allow for the appropriate recruitment and training of staff.

“It is hoped the unit will care for all babies in the Thames Valley Region born before 27 weeks gestation, improve services for babies with complex needs, provide appropriate facilities for babies needing specialised care, and improve care for local families and babies delivered at the John Radcliffe Hospital.”