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Poverty and Babies


While preparing a presentation on ‘the contemporary two-year-old’, I came across a statement in an academic paper to the effect that the single most important risk factor in infancy that predicts later maladjustments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, is poverty. Poverty threatens positive interactions between primary carers and babies and infants, and increases the incidence of punitive, negative relationships.

We know that as family income falls, domestic violence increases. Witnessing violence at close quarters disrupts the normal development of the young child’s brain and lays the foundations, at a neurobiological level, for later mental illness.

Recently, a deputation of MPs from all parties met with George Osborne to ask him to protect the budget for mental health services. I applaud them. However, this may be an instance of desperately trying to close the stable door long after the horse has bolted (about 18 years previously).

I wholeheartedly believe that investing in early intervention services (such as parent-infant psychotherapy; targeted parent education programmes; training staff to a high level to work in Children’s Centres and nurseries) is critical, but anti-poverty investment comes first.  Creating safe neighbourhoods; providing affordable, decent housing; enforcing a living wage – these measures will prevent many children from ever needing the early intervention services that should, of course, also be provided.

This is the agenda that Nicholas Winterton put forward in his seminal – and far too little mentioned – report that came out prior to ‘Changing Childbirth’ in 1992. Winterton explored the social underpinnings of poor maternity outcomes and of differences in neonatal mortality and morbidity rates according to mothers’ socio-economic status.

Infant mortality rates still show that differential – 23 years after the Winterton Report. ‘Evidence’, while much talked about is not always easy to understand or apply but, In terms of children’s wellbeing, it’s very clear. If poor babies and infants fare worse than not-poor babies and infants, then perhaps the issue in question is poverty.

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