Clair Rees is Executive Director of the charity Parent Infant Partnership (UK) and a Parliamentary Early Years Adviser. 

What do you think should be the first priority for our nation’s wellbeing? Parity of esteem between physical and mental health? Addressing health inequalities? Social mobility? Breaking cycles of deprivation, inequality and poverty? I guess some people might consider these and add some of their own preferences. So let me add one that is pivotal to the vision and mission of Parent Infant Partnership (UK): every baby deserves to have the best possible start in life through a secure bond in their earliest relationship.

A secure bond is enabled through the quality of interactions between a baby and their caregiver. Through relationship formation in our earliest relationships lies the elixir for healthy relationships throughout the lifespan, supported by the village it takes to raise a child and support a family.

Without healthy relationships, society crumbles. Healthy relationships are not just a necessity for survival but a catalyst for growth in family and community life. Healthy relationships provide a nurturing environment in which to learn and develop skills necessary for good citizenship and ingenuity in the wider world.

The concept of a family hub needs to be rooted in relational philosophy, policy and evidence-based practice, in a framework which has at its core the vision of the 1001 Critical Days: the importance of the conception to age two period.

Andrea Leadsom MP – founding pioneer of Parent Infant Partnership (UK), and the key Conservative politician to bring the cross-party manifesto of the 1001 Critical Days vision to the forefront – absolutely knows that the key to our nation’s wellbeing and future potential can be unlocked through the wellbeing of babies, who are our future.

In the concept of children’s centres, Andrea saw the potential to refocus their vision with an emphasis on a under-twos strategy. Not because an early intervention lifespan approach is unnecessary, but because overwhelming research from economics and science shows that the conception to age two period is a window of opportunity to transform life chances for children and future generations.

Prioritising a universal, holistic and seamless perinatal strategy at the beginning of any family hub model that may be decided upon in the future will only strengthen life chances at every other stage beyond two years old. Children’s centres if they become re-branded as a family hub and gain statutory footing, have an opportunity to implement this vision where every baby can have the best possible start in life.

We know that when babies have the opportunity to thrive within the experience of their earliest relationships, the strong social and emotional foundation which is laid at this critical window of early childhood development has an extraordinary impact upon every other life stage.

The flip side of the coin, when a low prioritisation is given to a universal, seamless and holistic approach in the perinatal period, can be seen in devastating statistics:

  • 26 per cent of babies in the UK have a parent affected by domestic violence, mental health or substance misuse
  • Domestic violence affects 39,000 babies
  • Mental health problems affect 144,000 babies
  • Substance misuse affects 109,000 babies
  • 36 per cent of serious case reviews into deaths or serious abuse involve a child under one
  • Depression and anxiety affect 10-15 out of every 1001 pregnant women
  • Over a third of domestic violence begins in pregnancy
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs in about 8 per cent of pregnant women
  • One million children in the UK suffer from the type of problems (including ADHD, conduct disorder, emotional problems and vulnerabilities to chronic illness) that are increased by antenatal depression, anxiety and stress
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for women during pregnancy and in the year after giving birth
  • Earlier this year, only 3 per cent of local areas had a perinatal mental health strategy

If the philosophy underpinning the vision, policy and practice of a family hub is to give every baby the best possible start in life, the above statistics should cause a serious shake-up in the policy-making process around the under-twos and what impact this is having on some of society’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens, babies – our future.

The 1001 Critical Days manifesto outlines a number of key recommendations to shape the concept of a family hub and its perinatal strategy.

Acting to improve the first 1001 Critical Days of a child’s life is a worthy goal that deserves all of our attention. For a broad vision and the investment needed to truly realise the vision of giving every baby the best possible start in life, a long term, cross-party and protected budget approach is required. A cultural shift in everyone’s thinking around the importance of babies is pivotal to realise this vision.

There are three top policy developments in the 1001 perinatal ‘wish list’ which would have significant impact and outcomes, to give every baby the best possible start in life whilst allowing time for a comprehensive strategic plan for family hubs to be undertaken:

  • Every pregnant woman to be offered an antenatal physical and mental health assessment
  • Birth registration to be offered in every children’s centre – 100 per cent parental engagement
  • Vital data sharing amongst front line professionals.