Opinion

What we’ve learned from supporting parents and their babies in lockdown

12 June 2020

This Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, Victoria Joel at the NSPCC  shares the insights gained through delivering their Baby Steps programme during a pandemic.

The theme for this year's Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (7 to 12 June 2020) encourages us to think about the experiences of babies and how these influence their mental health and development.

Evidence shows that exposure to significant stress in the womb or early life can impact on child development and long-term outcomes. 

Infants and young babies have some capacity to understand others’ behaviours or to feel their emotions (Gerhardt, 2014) and stressful relationships with their main caregiver over an extended period can have a negative impact on brain development. However, secure attachments with a caregiver who is attuned to what their baby is communicating and able to respond appropriately can mitigate that.

It’s important that parents and carers who may be finding it harder to attune to their baby’s needs, given the confusion and disruption to our lives right now, are given the right support to help them give their baby the best start in life.  

Baby Steps is a perinatal education programme designed by the NSPCC for new parents, that helps them cope with the transition to parenthood, underpinned by attachment theory, reflective function and mentalisation theories. 

An evaluation found that parents who completed it showed improved mental health, improvements in the quality of their relationships with their babies and were better protected against relationship breakdown and postnatal depression (Coster, Brookes and Sanger, 2015).

The NSPCC helps other organisations set up the Baby steps programme in their local area. The programme is then delivered jointly by someone in children’s services, and a health visitor or midwife. Ordinarily, Baby Steps is delivered face-to-face through group sessions and two home visits. 

But as soon as lockdown measures were announced in the UK, all Baby Steps group sessions were paused and the Baby Steps sites quickly worked to adapt the way the programme was delivered. Here’s what we’ve learned, with the help of family support manager from Blackpool Better Start’s Baby Steps team, Dee Talbott.

Working together, we can achieve better outcomes

Since the lockdown came into effect, the health visiting team in Blackpool have continued to provide face-to-face antenatal contact with parents where it’s possible, and one home visit after the baby is born. These visits, and those from midwives are, in some cases, shorter than usual, to limit the time the professional needs to spend inside the family’s home. 

While midwives and HVs are still able to share important messages during their visits, knowing their Baby Steps co-facilitators will be following up with parents over the phone to help reinforce these messages has helped health visiting and midwifery to limit in-person contact time with families, helping reduce the risk of spreading the virus. 

In Blackpool, the Baby Steps team have also been signposting parents in need of extra support to the NSPCC for a safe and well check over the phone (a service introduced since the lockdown). This has provided families with wrap around support that’s proven invaluable for some parents and babies. 

It takes a village

Baby Steps facilitators went from delivering group sessions to eight or nine mums plus their partners to having to share the key messages from the programme with each set of mums and partners individually. This drew significantly on facilitators’ time as telephone sessions with parents were sometimes up to an hour long. 

As this was a common theme across all Baby Steps sites, the NSPCC brought the teams together to produce short videos that are being shared with parents over a private YouTube channel. With multiple videos for each session in a bitesize length, parents can take in the content in their own time, and in advance of their call with their facilitator. 

Now the phone sessions are used by parents to ask questions and share any worries or concerns they might have after viewing the videos, which has enabled them to gain added value from their time with facilitators. 

There’s often a silver lining

Since lockdown, many expectant and new parents have felt anxious about their pregnancy, the birth of their child and their baby’s first few months; others have been concerned about changes to their work routine and antenatal appointments. 

However, some parents have also shared the positive effects of lockdown they’ve felt. Dee and the team in Blackpool have noticed that mums and partners are finding benefits in taking part in programmes like Baby Steps from home, rather than rushing to appointments outside the home as they normally would. 

They’re also not feeling as much pressure to do certain things as a mum, or guilt for not doing them, because their options are so limited now. And in some families, dads have more time to spend with their baby now they’re working from home, giving them an opportunity to build their bond with their baby. 

How we can continue to support parents

To protect the emotional wellbeing of infants now, and mitigate any long-term impact, we must first support parents and caregivers, to help them provide the stable and loving environments their children need to thrive. 

With the closure of parenting groups, peer and family support less accessible and a ‘new world’ to navigate, services like Baby Steps enable us to do just that. 

If you’re interested in being licenced to deliver Baby Steps in your area, visit the website. Please also help us campaign for all families to get the support they need if they’re struggling with mental health during the perinatal period by signing our Fight for a Fair Start campaign petition. Thank you.

  • Victoria Joel is development support officer at the NSPCC.

References

Coster D, Brookes H, Sanger C. (2015) Evaluation of the Baby Steps programme: pre- and post-measures study. See: bit.ly/30qd20L (accessed 9 June 2020).

Gerhardt S. (2014) Why love matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain. Routledge: London.

Picture Credit | iStock
 

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