Better Start Blackpool Conference
Ready for Rebuilding the Future: Putting Babies and Children First
I attended this virtual conference as I had heard about this anecdotally from families and practitioners. Reading newspaper articles about the impact of the lockdown on very young children and their families, I also wanted to know more about where we are currently as a country and what is needed to improve the lives of our youngest children.
I found the ‘Are We Building Back Better for Babies’ presentation from Sally Hogg, Head of Policy and Campaigning and Coordinator of the First 1001 Days Movement at the Parent Infant Foundation (PIF), inspiring.
She spoke about the impact on the lives of babies and parents during the pandemic and post-pandemic, and also where the UK was in terms of support for babies BEFORE it. She described how:
- Our infant mortality rate is one of the 3 highest rates amongst comparable countries and is getting worse. She referred to Dr. Camilla Kingdon, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who says the infant mortality rate is a real touchstone for how a country is doing in terms of children’s health and is such an indicator of so many things to do with pregnancy and the wellbeing of our babies and families.
- Our rate of childhood vaccinations in the UK has been declining and we lost our WHO measles free status in 2019.
- The rate of poverty has risen fastest for the youngest children over the last decade. Over a third of all families with a child under 5 live in poverty.
- Our breastfeeding rates are at the lowest for a decade and are lower than comparable countries.
I had not been aware of the first 2 points and was taken aback by them.
Sally Hogg went on to talk about research that the PIF had undertaken into what happened DURING THE PANDEMIC:
- Many families underwent trauma due to decreasing services and the restricted conditions: mums had to give birth alone or go to scans alone.
- There was a large increase in parental mental health concerns expressed by parents.
- Research with practitioners revealed that 98% of them had seen the impact of parental anxiety/depression/stress on the babies that their organisation worked with, affecting their relationships with each other and their bonding.
- The impact of decreasing support and increasing tensions amongst families is reflected in the figures relating to child death and injury. There were over 100 reports of serious infant injury or death between April and October 2020, a 50% increase on the previous 6 months and 31% increase compared to the same time in 2019.
These statistics make for very sobering reading. I knew about the rise in domestic abuse and the increase in calls to helplines, but to hear what the lack of support had meant for the most vulnerable in society, our babies, is truly shocking.
Health Visitors are a crucial support for parents and infants but their presence during the lockdown was much reduced. I was staggered to hear that research by Prof. Gabriella Conti at the University College London (UCL) showed that up to 80% of Health Visitors in some areas were redeployed into other roles during the pandemic and, that this continued for some of them until into the 2nd wave. What a huge loss of support for those families.
I have worked with many Health Visitors and family support staff over the years who provide such needed support for our youngest children and their parents and so, I know how crucial their roles are. This experience will have been traumatising for staff also who wanted to continue to support.
Sadly, as Sally explained, the impact of the lockdowns is still resonating for many families who are less advantaged and who now may be experiencing accumulated trauma, entrenched isolation, and decreased trust. The landscape for many is hugely challenging with the end to the Universal Credit and furlough, housing insecurity and rising costs. An upshot of all this is a 13% decrease in families taking up the 2-year-old offer.
The focus of the presentation moved onto looking at the way forward to rebuild services for parents and infants. There is an opportunity to do things better, and Sally acknowledged how professionals had developed more responsive approaches.
The ‘Best Start for Life’ document that Andrea Leadsom MP has led on, offers a positive vision of what could be? but there is much concern that there is no one responsible for leading on babies and children under 2 in the UK Government.
We know that the DfE talking about learning from the age 2 upwards is not sufficient. We know that so much development takes places in utero and in those first 2 years of life.
I completely agree with Sally Hogg’s passionate call for championing babies; for making the ‘Best Start for Life’ vision a reality and giving it the importance and priority it so deserves. We need to see infants included in mental health strategies so that their needs can be supported, together with those of their parents, from the very beginning.