This week the Conservative MP, Andrea Leadsom launched the government-backed initiative of an Early Years Healthy Development Review which aims to set out a Start For Life package enabling families to receive local support when they first become parents. New family hubs made up of midwives, social workers, health visitors and other experts are intended to support parents in the first 1001 days of a child’s life, prevent families falling through the cracks and ensure that babies, especially from deprived backgrounds, have the best possible start in life.
This sounds like a wonderful idea. From the moment a woman becomes pregnant, she is bombarded with unsolicited advice from just about everyone she encounters, and it is always difficult to know what advice is best. Women who have just given birth are immensely vulnerable. I can clearly recall becoming a mother for the first time and the terrifying fear that I would do something wrong. I felt pressure from all over, some real and some just a result of my heightened pregnancy paranoia. I had a lot of input from health visitors and midwives and even though I knew they meant well, sometimes I found all of their visits rather exhausting. I just wanted to be in a bubble with my baby until we developed a routine. One of the benefits of this new scheme is that it hopes to be able to offer guidance when it is needed by giving parents access to support digitally, virtually or on the telephone.
Whilst I welcome any form of support that is going to be helpful and productive. I am not convinced that this scheme alone is enough for new parents. I base my opinion on a disturbing trend that is escalating and has been exasperated further by lockdown. That is the number of babies that die as a result of being shaken. The NSPCC revealed in a recent survey that in the past decade more than 220 infants in the UK have been killed or severely injured as a result of being shaken. Yet, these figures are not wholly accurate and are most likely to be a lot higher because the government has not kept official figures on the number of cases. Furthermore, this lack of statistics means that we can not be certain if this worrying trend is wholly a modern phenomenon.
According to experts in child protection, the majority of these cases are triggered by a baby crying excessively – usually because it has an injury that has gone unnoticed. Sadly, you do not have to look far to discover a multitude of such cases. Joanne Peacock’s son, Charlie was left blind with cerebral palsy after being shaken by his father when he was 16 weeks old. His injuries were equivalent to a high speed car accident because he had been shaken that violently. Similarly, there was the case of Millie-Rose Burdett who was shaken by her mother’s partner, Davey Everson and left with multiple fractures, bruising and a bleed on the brain, from which she never recovered. Six month old Ethan Hopson was also viciously shaken by his mother’s partner, Jason Redgrave and died as a result of his severe brain injuries. Regrettably, there are far too many of these cases.
A further indication that these cases are rife can be seen in the response some child protection experts are making by trying to establish schemes to raise awareness in order to prevent parents from losing control. In Hampshire, Suzanne Smith has set up ICON, which has been rolled out nationally to all maternity units. ICON is a mnemonic educating parents by means of a simple four-point message
- Infant crying is normal
- Comforting methods can help
- It is OK to walk away
- Never, ever shake a baby.
Parents are educated at specific points before and after the birth of a child, as well as via educational resources and a website offering advice for parents on how to cope with a crying baby.
Again, this is an immensely positive step forward and even if it prevents the death of one baby from excessive shaking, then it can be considered successful. However, I believe that as much as it is vital to educate parents at the time when they become parents, we should consider educating individuals much sooner, whilst they are still at school. A further reason for this is to be found in the fact that the traditional family unit of the 1950s and 1960s is no more. Many parents have children without marriage, divorce is more prevalent, and most relationships no longer last. Thus, someone can become a carer or a step-parent for a child without having ever stepped foot inside a maternity unit.
We often think that having a baby is going to be a blissful event, which will solidify a relationship. Whilst this is true to a degree, having a baby is hard work and exhausting. No one has ever had a baby and expressed concern that it was far easier than they expected. In fact, I can recall that when I had my first baby, I was surprised that the baby did not just lie down and sleep in their cot all day. We need to educate our teenagers so that if they do decide to have a baby, they realise the full implications and commitment involved. I have heard of some schools where students have to care for an infant simulator. A school in Birmingham which has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, gives pupils a taste of parenthood by giving them a life-like doll with a microchip to care for. They have to clean the baby, help it to sleep and change the doll’s nappies. The school’s headteacher believes that this enables students to realise how difficult it is to be a parent and thus allows students to make an informed choice about their future.
As with many challenges of modern life, the answer lies in education from an early age. If we made this sort of educational activity obligatory in schools, then perhaps more people would realise the truth of raising babies and children. Ergo they would comprehend that a parent’s life has to evolve around the baby and its needs, rather than fit into someone’s life. Parents would also comprehend how to spot the signs of being unable to cope and which organisations they should contact if they need support. Perhaps the money spent on the Start For Life initiative might have been better deployed within schools, creating an educational programme to prepare future generations for parenthood. With the possible increase in shaken baby cases and the pressures of modern life, particularly in lockdown, it really is crucial that something is done soon.
Princess Mary The First Modern Princess
The History Press
is available here.