Andrea Leadsom is Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and MP for South Northamptonshire.
The Prime Minister’s Life Chances agenda will be, I hope, his greatest legacy to our country. I know he is passionate about giving a hand up to each and every citizen – his reforms to education and welfare will literally transform the life chances for our young people. A great education, strong incentives to work and quality training are each of vital importance to improving our human condition. But I want to argue that nowhere, in our entire lifespan, is there a more crucial period for the development of our emotional and mental wellbeing than the 1001 Critical Days from conception to the age of two, which this site referred to in an article about the Queen’s Speech and families policy earlier this week.
There is now a wealth of evidence that shows it is the earliest experiences of a baby, both in the womb and during the earliest years, that determine his or her lifelong emotional health. A secure, loving relationship with the mother or an adult carer will help the baby literally to ‘learn’ that the world is a good place. Such a baby is likely to grow up able to cope with life’s ups and downs, and will be able to form strong relationships of their own.
On the other hand, a baby whose care is neglectful, inconsistent or abusive will struggle with self-esteem, may find it difficult to form strong relationships and, at the most serious end of abuse, may grow up to become a highly dangerous adult, to themselves and those around them. David Cameron was laughed at for suggesting we should ‘hug a hoodie’, but the point behind his comment was deadly serious – those babies and young toddlers who today are being abused and ill-treated will form the vast majority of those, in 15 or 20 years’ time, who will be the damaged, depressed, self-harming, violent, addictive young people of their generation.
Statistics compiled by the NSPCC demonstrate the tragedy that 26 per cent of babies in the UK are born into families where there are mental health, substance abuse and/or domestic violence issues. We also know that the greatest risk of dying a violent death is when the human baby is less than a year old. Those who should provide a loving and nurturing environment – the parents – can sometimes deliberately or unintentionally provide the exact opposite.
So we have to ask ourselves: what sort of society do we want? One where we are constantly torn between anger at perpetrators of crime and abuse, and sympathy for their often appalling early beginnings? Or do we instead want to put our effort and resources into tackling the problem at source – providing the support in the perinatal period that would massively improve the life chances of that tiny human being?
I think the Prime Minister’s Life Chances programme gives us a unique opportunity to deliver a dramatic improvement in perinatal support and care at a modest additional cost to the public purse. In the last Parliament, I launched ‘The 1001 Critical Days Manifesto’ along with Frank Field for Labour, Paul Burstow for the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas for the Greens. We had carried out detailed research through the All-Party Group for Sure Starts and the All Party Group for the Conception to Age Two Period. I have personally been working for 20 years now with charities that provide psychotherapeutic support for families that are struggling to form a secure bond with their new baby. As a result of the vast amount of global evidence, and in support of the Life Chances agenda, I would like to throw in some ideas that could make a real difference:
The key proposal is that each local authority should create their own 1001 Critical Days offering that could include a range of services that can be delivered through the existing Children’s Centre network.
First, services that already exist to prepare new parents emotionally and physically for a new baby should be streamlined and made universal; new approaches to identify and address mental illness, substance misuse and domestic violence in the antenatal period should become a core part of the support offered to expectant mums; post birth, centres should provide support for Mum and Dad as well as baby and siblings, making relationship support available (did you know the biggest break up of parental relationships is in the first year after a new baby?); specialist parent infant mental health support should be provided for those whose problems go far beyond the knowledge of our wonderful health visitors.
Second, there are ten very specific, (and mostly very cheap!) interventions that local authorities could commit to offering to all new parents:
i) a mental health assessment for all expectant Mums (of course offered, not compulsory).
ii) A relaunch of the long standing ‘Red Book’ given to each new family, that draws parents’ attention to the ‘5 To Thrive’ daily activities that build baby’s brain.
iii) Birth registration to be carried out in Children’s Centres – a key way to engage with new dads, and proven to be enormously beneficial in all sorts of ways.
iv) Parent-infant Psychotherapy, and other evidence-based therapeutic support for mums, dads and babies to address the deep rooted problems associated with depression and disorganised attachment.
v) A hub in each Children’s Centre for health visitors, midwives and other early years professionals to get rid of the work silos and work better with families.
vi) Volunteer outreach programmes to engage with the most vulnerable and isolated families.
vii) Relationship and couple counselling.
viii) Training for, and signposting to, qualified child-minders.
ix) Representation from job centre plus to help Mums, when the time is right, get back into the workplace.
x) Support from Citizens Advice Bureau and others to provide debt advice.
I firmly believe that a great education and free healthcare are just two legs of a three legged stool; in Britain the stool will keep falling over unless we sort out the third leg – that of a secure foundation for every baby.
There is a deep and growing evidence base showing the lifelong effect of poor parenting in the early years, and the impact that effective intervention can have during the perinatal period. There is also an extremely strong economic case for intervention with a recent LSE study putting the financial cost to society of perinatal depression alone at £10,000 per birth. We have a unique opportunity to address the challenge of poor early attachment and the relationship breakdown, hardship and expense that it inflicts on our society. The Prime Minister is completely right to be prioritising Life Chances in this Parliament.