Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary, and is MP for South Northamptonshire. Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge.
In survey after survey, parents explain that consistent and joined-up support is key to helping them cope with the arrival of their new baby. And there’s no doubt that excellent midwives, health visitors, mental health therapists and family support workers do all they can to give the encouragement and advice that many new families are crying out for. But there is also no doubt that their efforts could be amplified enormously by using the extraordinary possibilities of digital.
There are a number of popular and incredibly helpful baby apps that are trying to improve the access to information and advice. Best Beginnings’s ‘Baby Buddy,’ and Easy Peasy are providing advice on everything from how to cope with a crying baby and how to get better sleep, to help for mental health issues and parental conflict. There is no replacement for face to face empathetic and timely support, but the Covid lockdown has shown digital and remote support can be a lifeline for those needing help.
The Early Years Healthy Development Review chaired by Andrea and the Parliamentary Advisory Group of which Miriam is a Member, is considering ways in which the power of technology can help give every baby the best start in life. Five clear ways are emerging in which technology could really enhance and support the first 1001 critical days of a baby’s life – the period from conception to age two.
- The digital Red Book: ( remember the red plastic book, with pages that fall out, that we were all given at the birth of a child?) This is a valuable recorder of information on birth weight, immunisations etc, but how much better and simpler would it be if this was recorded in a private, digital space like an app where parents could also add other important markers in a child’s life such as first photos, a video of first steps and the first time they try solid food? This innovation is on its way thanks to excellent work already happening within the Department for Health.
- Medical Notes compiled by the midwife and health visitor are currently not ‘owned’ by the parent. Instead, each service keeps their own notes, so that parents have to tell their story/reiterate their concerns over and over to multiple different health professionals. Technology offers an efficient solution for parents to own notes and data from their child’s first 1001 days, placing the power in their hands to share information with professionals in a GDPR compliant way when required.
- During lockdown, we have seen how vital interaction is for parents and their babies in the important perinatal period. We have heard heartbreaking stories of lonely first-time parents and small babies who have had little or no interaction with other children – and when meeting another baby for the first time are overwhelmed by what they are experiencing. The solution to this challenge could, extraordinarily, be to utilise the technology of dating apps. Imagine a ‘play dating’ app that could match a new parent with another new Mum or Dad and a baby of a similar age, helping them to connect online or in person to improve the social and mutual support needed to combat isolation.
- The hugely trusted existing NHS website should have a section dedicated to everything early years, covering the period from conception to the age of two. This would enable families to get trusted advice from a reliable, consistent source, with an app available at their fingertips to boost the support that parents may need.
- The 111 helpline has now become a trusted public service, and it would be valuable to parents as well as time saving for early years professionals if there was an option to dial 111 and speak directly to an early years advisor. For a new parent seeking advice about the perinatal period or their baby’s health it would be reassuring to be quickly directed to a group that has the expertise to answer questions that would otherwise need to await an appointment with GP or health visitor.
Digital support can never and should never replace the vital face to face and ‘place based’ help that families need, but as we have seen during lockdown, it can provide quick answers, useful signposting and help to combat loneliness.
Getting the data sharing aspect right can transform access to services. For every new family struggling to cope with the challenge of a new baby, improving access to early years support is how we will give every baby the best start in life.