Editor's Blog

Universal parent education – strongly recommended but not available

I’ve been reading an excellent publication from the Early Intervention Foundation entitled, ‘The Best Start at Home: A report on what works to improve the quality of parent child interactions from conception to age 5’.

At the beginning of the document is a powerful statement:

‘The research shows that sensitive and responsive caregiving is a powerful buffer against over-exposure to stress hormones, which is why it is vitally important that parents and caregivers are given the opportunity to understand how best to provide such caregiving to their children’.

The report talks about giving this opportunity ‘to understand’ to all mothers and fathers, and not just to those who might have, or are having, particular problems with parenting.

As those of you who read my blogs regularly will know, I am constantly making the case for universal parent education. Who should be delivering it? Presumably, midwives and health visitors are the people ideally suited to do so. Yet I was working with a group of midwives from around the country recently, and we were discussing how you might establish whether a pregnant woman is attuned to her unborn baby. We discussed the importance of the baby’s earliest relationships and of the need for mums and dads to talk to their baby, have plenty of face-to-face contact, read to them and hold them close. The midwives were interested and enthusiastic – but when I asked them whether the kind of conversation we were having ever formed part of their encounters with pregnant or new families, they said that they didn’t have time to talk to parents about these issues.

Not so long after, I was with a group of health visitors and we were talking about antenatal education. The health visitors said there were no groups running in their area, but that they had the chance to cover what would once have been the curriculum for antenatal classes during their 36 weeks home visit to pregnant mothers. I asked what topics were covered during this visit and they said it was primarily about breastfeeding, safe sleeping and basic babycare. The time available was very limited and the health visitors felt there was no expectation or requirement that they would look at sensitive parenting issues with their clients. In relation to new families, the main focus of their attention was safeguarding, and the time taken to ensure that babies and children of vulnerable families were kept safe meant that there was no time left for parent education provided in groups or during one-to-one postnatal visits to the majority of women. The health visitors rarely, if ever, met fathers.

The Early Intervention Foundation’s report notes that, ‘there is no single panacea or method in terms of enhancing the quality of parent-child interaction’ and recommends that programmes for parents can be run ‘by a range of practitioners, both professionals and volunteers’. It also states that many parents feel that the new evidence from neuro-science on how children develop is ‘a secret that the professionals keep to themselves’.

Everybody seems to accept that early intervention is ‘a good thing’. But it’s clearly not happening, and if those professionals charged with delivering it are not, for very good reasons, able to do so, please can we establish who should be doing it in their place?



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