From conception to age two - 1001 critical days
As a mother of three, I know how hard it can be when you first become a parent. Nothing compares with the love you feel for your baby, but nothing prepares you for the sleep deprivation, the time it takes to recover from birth and the impact that such a tiny person has on almost every part of your life.
Some aspects of parenting do come naturally, but many don’t. Just because you love your baby doesn’t mean that you know what every cry means, how to help your child feed better or even how to change a nappy. All these things must be learned. My husband and I were extremely fortunate to have our family nearby to help us in the early days, and lots of friends who were learning to be parents alongside us too.
When I had my second child, I thought we knew exactly what we were doing; but a number of health problems lead to her - and me - not getting any sleep for four months. This experience was a real struggle, even with all the support we could draw upon. Sadly, many people don’t have that same support from family and friends.
In the UK we are fortunate to have excellent health care, and highly trained midwives, health visitors and social workers, but these services are not always ‘joined up’ and many families’ experience of statutory services is patchy, and sometimes parents are left not knowing where to turn. Every new parent has hundreds of questions – often in the middle of the night – and on occasion there is just nowhere to go to get help. Services can be far too focused on identifying medical problems, which is of course important, but this approach doesn’t help parents to develop the skills and network of support they need to grow in confidence.
The first 1001 days of a child’s life, from conception to age two, are critical to the rest of their lives.
Every year, more-and-more evidence is established that shows that a child’s earliest experiences, even in the womb, are a significant factor in determining how happy and healthy they will be as adults. Factors such as: how well a baby forms a bond with their parents, the quality of their parents’ relationships, and even how many words the baby hears, can all impact neurological development even before a baby is born. When the early years go wrong, the impact on a child’s life can be tragic, leading to poor mental and physical health outcomes in childhood but also in later life.
From the age of five, when a child goes to school, their progress and wellbeing are robustly monitored through our education system. Problems and challenges can be identified, and appropriate support then given to the child and their family. But, despite the critical importance of these first 1001 days, we just don’t have the same safety nets and support structures for families in the early years.
So, when Andrea Leadsom asked me to join the Parliamentary Advisory Board for her Early Years Healthy Development Review (EYHDR), I jumped at the chance. The EYHDR was commissioned by the Prime Minister to look into how we can improve the health and development outcomes of babies and young children in England, an area that has been a passion of Andrea’s for the last 20 years. The review is fully supported by officials and resources from the Department of Health and Social Care.
Since last summer, we’ve been speaking to families all over the country and conducting ‘deep dives’ into a wide variety of early years services and programmes from all over the world. This first stage of the review has been focused on developing an understanding of what an ‘excellent’ early years package of support would look like here in England.
As a member of the EYHDR Parliamentary Advisory Board, it’s been my role to help steer the direction of the review, and I have taken a particular interest in the work surrounding ‘Family Hubs’, where families can access all sorts of support in the heart of their local community, but where they can also build relationships with other families.
Yesterday, the Government published the outcome of the review, and it was a privilege to be part of the launch event attended (virtually) by over 600 people. The report sets out a vision for best practice across the health system to ensure babies and children can get the best possible start in life. To achieve this, the review highlights six Action Areas which are key to improving health outcomes in babies and young children:
Ensuring families have access to the services they need
- Seamless support for families: encouraging local authorities to publish a clear Start for Life offer for parents, so that all parents and carers are aware the support they can expect locally.
- A welcoming hub for families: building on the Government’s commitment to champion Family Hubs, making them a place for families to access Start for Life services, such as childcare, early education and healthcare, as well as to get advice on thing such as jobs and training.
- The information families need when they need it: designing digital, virtual and telephone services around the needs of the family, including digitising the personal child health record, commonly known as the ‘red book’
Ensuring the Start for Life system is working together to give families the support they need
- An empowered Start for Life workforce: developing a modern skilled workforce to meet the changing needs of families with babies, and looking at new ways to support and empower staff to increase the retention rate of health visitors
- Continually improving the Start for Life offer: improving the data, evaluation and outcomes of health services for families and babies, to ensure they are meeting a family’s needs.
- Leadership for change: encouraging local areas to nominate a leader and ensuring the delivery of the review is overseen at a national level.
I’m particularly excited by Action Area 2, championing Family Hubs, because I know how much my family and I benefitted from the support received through my local community. I want every family to have the same opportunities as my family did and I believe that Family Hubs can provide a one-stop-shop for new parents. The local Family Hub could be a place where parents can see health visitors, find out about playgroups, access parenting support, find out about other help, such as debt advice, and even where parents could register their baby’s birth.
We need to do much more to recognise the economic, health and social benefits to society of improving the resilience of families, so I’m pleased that our government made a manifesto commitment of £14 million to champion Family Hubs.
Our vision for early years sets out an ambitious programme of work through which we will transform the support available to families. To implement the vision, the Department for Health and Social Care will work with Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement as well as local government to map out the Start for Life journey of parents and carers to ensure the best support throughout those 1,001 critical days, setting babies up to maximise their potential for lifelong emotional and physical wellbeing.