Consumer overload

07 December 2018

Could it be time to return to a more back-to-basics culture, given the pressure parents face to buy goods before their child is even born, regardless of necessity or affordability? Journalist Beverley D’Silva reports. 

Mother pushing pram and overwelmed

The overall cost of bringing up a child has risen by 6% for couples and 18% for lone parents in the past six years (Hirsch, 2018). The pressure on parents to supply their newborns and children with the very latest stuff – regardless of need or cost– has also been highlighted by recent consumer surveys. In 2014, for instance, 2000 expectant parents said they spent more than £1600 just preparing for the arrival of their first baby, with six in 10 admitting buying items they didn’t need or use (Aviva plc, 2014).

In addition, a recent poll found that one in four new parents rely on credit during maternity or paternity leave, racking up debts of more than £2700 – with more than a third having to return to work earlier than planned to ease money worries (Noddle, 2018). The survey of more than 1000 parents was weighted to be representative of the UK but didn’t list household incomes.

So what about UK families who struggle to make ends meet? More than 120,000 children were living in temporary accommodation because of homelessness in England in June 2017 (Parker-Radford, 2018), and the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that around 37% of children in the UK are expected to be living in poverty by 2022, under current policies and economic projections (Parker-Radford, 2018). And this prediction doesn’t take into account the transition to universal credit (Hood and Waters, 2017).

For families on modest incomes, the past decade has been tough. The cost of a child in 2018 report sums it up: ‘Household costs have risen, while household incomes have stagnated’ (Hirsch, 2018).


Snapshot of the Pressures

Maxine Jenkins is a specialist health visitor at Beaumont Leys children’s centre in Leicester and has worked with homeless families for the past 17 years. ‘I work with homeless clients whose incomes are very, very limited. Parents do face pressure to spend on their child, and it comes from themselves, others and the media. The guilt clients I see have about being homeless and their feelings of worthlessness can be overwhelming. They may see children the same age as theirs who have phones and laptops and they can’t give theirs the same. On TV, they see families with nice things and nice homes - bringing more guilt.’

Maxine has met parents who got into ‘massive debt and go crazy’.

‘Last Christmas, I had a parent who spent £250 on a child under one. They got them an iPad… as a homeless family they could ill afford that; it was disastrous.’

Though she reasons with clients, it doesn’t make much difference, she says. ‘They desperately want to make up for everything that has gone wrong and try to compensate with material things. But it’s the emotional issues that are at stake.’

Angela Lewis was a health visitor in the NHS for 37 years, and is CPHVA rep in south Gloucestershire. ‘Pregnant women in particular are like sponges - they soak up information, be it from the media, marketing or peers. If a friend says: “I bought this item and it freed me to get on with other things”, they’ll be convinced they need one too. Most parents want to do their very best for their children, and they can be fed a message that they’re fulfilling that with equipment.’

Angela recalls that at one time, HVs and midwives gave ‘preparation for parenthood’ classes. ‘We would discuss the equipment needed and how to get it, also when income is low. But owing to the cuts, HVs and midwives have had to cut visits and the contact they do antenatally. So parents are getting less information.’

This of course means less chance to suggest solutions to parents, Angela continues. ‘There are fewer opportunities for one-to-one time with families and to discuss issues around “layette” [a collection of clothes and accessories for a newborn] - what a parent would collect for their “bottom drawer”.

‘Years ago, aunties and grandmas would be knitting and you would be given so much stuff before the baby arrived. But from the 1980s, with the increase of specialist chains, preparing for baby shifted to more of a consumer-led thing… It’s the marketing - you’d feel you weren’t a good parent-to-be or parent if you didn’t have X, Y and Z piece of tat.’

Beyond baby

Once at school, other pressures can arise: The Parent power 2018 report from the Sutton Trust (Montacute and Cullinane, 2018) looked at how the social class divide affected education. Almost half of state school parents said they had been asked for extra money for the school; and around a third feared negative consequences if they did not pay. Working-class parents were more likely to say the cost of travel, and potential extra costs such as uniforms, played a role in the school they chose for their children. There have been various campaigns urging cuts on uniform costs around the UK (BBC, 2018; CMA, 2015).

Outside of school, when it comes to extras for older children, chief executive of charity Family Lives Jeremy Todd says: ‘Parents need to acknowledge there are limits to every family’s resources - it’s important not to be ashamed or embarrassed to say no to older children or teens. Part of managing expectations is about being engaged with your children and knowing what they’re interested in rather than money spent.

‘Most children won’t remember the special expensive football boots they wore when they played the game – they will remember that their parents were there.’

Estimate minimum cost of being up a child


The Baby Box scheme

Provided to all new babies in Scotland (since August 2017) and in some parts of England, each box contains a large number of essential items. These include clothing, a play mat, digital ear thermometer and sling carrier. The box itself comes with a mattress and can be used as a sleep space. There’s been some debate on its safety as a sleep space due in part to lack of research, though supporters say it makes unsafe co-sleeping less likely. The box has been praised for providing a more equal start in life and showing all parents they matter.

But with the projected cost in Scotland reaching £8m in 2017-18 and rising, it seems unlikely to be rolled out across the rest of the UK any time soon.

Finding real value

Maxine talks to families about the importance of one-to-one contact from the outset: ‘I remind them that no toy has any value for a child without a parent to play with it with them. We also look at ‘heuristic’ play - using everyday objects like saucepans and bowls, for play - and the play value of toys - which ones have greater learning value in them.’  

Jeremy adds: ‘Many goods marketed at new parents are ultimately pacifiers. They’re designed to keep children quiet: electronic devices and tablets are about removing your child’s attention from you onto something else.’

‘We’re all sadly familiar with a parent pushing a child in its pushchair, staring at their mobile phone and the child having a tantrum,’ he says. ‘The child’s demands of “I want, I want” are often the consequence of not being listened to and are likely to decrease, if not go away, with attention.’


Help and advice

In addition to traditional means of financial support such as child benefit and tax credits (see Resources below), Angela points out that some health visitors are setting up Facebook groups to get information to parents; and there are apps to offer information to new parents (see bit.ly/baby_apps for NHS suggestions).

There may also be local toy schemes: Maxine notes that in her area, parents can access a charity scheme called Toys on the Table, where toys will be delivered pre-wrapped on Christmas Day. In other areas, children’s centres run toy libraries, where parents can borrow a bag of toys for a few weeks, then return them. However, the spread of that service is not brilliant, says Maxine, pointing out that Leicester, for example, used to have 12 children’s centres but now has just six owing to cuts. Proximity and the cost of fares can add to the problem: ‘The biggest hospital I work with is on the outskirts of the city and it’s £5 for an adult to get into town - a big chunk of your income when you’re on £70 a week.’

Second-hand equipment can also be found on eBay and other websites (providing it has undergone the necessary safety checks).

So could it be time to return to a back-to-basics culture? Based on the pressures parents face to spend, the growing cost of raising a family and the projections for families facing poverty, a step in that direction seems a no-brainer. How it might be reached is another matter altogether. 



The Money Advice Service has a birth section listing benefits that expecting and new parents are entitled to, such as free prescriptions, plus information on who qualifies for a sure start maternity grant bit.ly/MAS_births

First Days is a children’s charity providing everyday essentials such as clothes, toiletries and furniture to families living in poverty across Berkshire (and further afield) firstdays.net

Family Lives (formerly Parentline Plus) has been helping parents to deal with the changes and challenges of family life for 30 years familylives.org.uk

Citizens Advice offers free, independent, confidential advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities citizensadvice.org.uk


What’s essential for a new baby?

Angela Lewis, who is now on-call matron at Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools, says that a list of essential items for a new baby will vary according to lifestyle, but a guideline would be:

  • Car seat
  • Sleeping place for baby – carry cot, crib and then a cot
  • Pram or pram/ pushchair combination
  • Baby bath
  • Changing mat/bag
  • Fireguard/stair gate (if required)
  • Feeding equipment (unless breastfeeding)
  • Play mat/mobile – small and portable.

Which? researchers calculated that if parents avoided the 10 least useful baby products (as voted for in a survey of more than 1000 parents) they could save more than £400 (Fox, 2017). Among that list was a door baby bouncer and bottle warmer. Angela also believes some items, such as baby monitors, especially those with cameras, are unnecessary and can ‘disable parental instincts’. 



Aviva PLC. (2014) UK: First-time parents spend £492 million preparing for baby. See: https://www.aviva.com/newsroom/news-releases/2014/04/uk-first-time-parents-spend-492-million-preparing-for-baby-17298/ (accessed 21 November 2018).
BBC. (2018) Schools told 'cut excessive uniform costs. See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-44804197(accessed 16 November 2018).
Competition and Markets Authority. (2015) CMA advises schools and suppliers over uniform prices. See: gov.uk/government/news/cma-advises-schools-and-suppliers-over-uniform-prices (accessed 16 November 2018).
Fox H. (2017) 10 baby products that parents rate and slate. See: which.co.uk/news/2017/10/10-baby-products-that-parents-rate-and-slate/ (accessed 22 Novemeber 2018).
Hirsch D. (2018) The cost of a child in 2018. See: http://www.cpag.org.uk/sites/default/files/uploads/CostofaChild2018_web.pdf (accessed 16 November 2018).
Hood A, Waters T. (2017) Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2017–18 to 2021–22. See:
https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/comms/R136.pdf (accessed 16 November 2018).

Montacute R, Cullinane C. (2018) Parent Power 2018. See: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Parent-Power-2018.pdf (accessed 22 November 2018).
Noddle. (2018) A quarter of Mums and Dads need to put parental leave on credit. See: blog.noddle.co.uk/finance/a-quarter-of-mums-and-dads-needing-to-put-parental-leave-on-credit/ (accessed 16 November 2018).
Parker-Radford D. (2018) The Unique Impact of Health Visitors on Poor Families. See:
qni.org.uk/2018/03/12/the-unique-impact-of-health-visitors-on-poor-families/ (accessed 16 November 2018).

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