On the 7th of May I had the honour of talking “at” the House of Commons about a petition signed by over 200,000 parents about maternity leave extending by 3 months during Covid. You can watch the full session here.
In preparation for the meeting we sent out a survey to gauge the views of parents across the UK. And the response was huge – thank you for your input!
The views regarding extending maternity leave vary widely. 82% wanting maternity leave extended to enable bonding with wider family, building peer support networks, and attending baby classes to help their child develop.
Although interestingly for those with a bump, or already back at work only 66% agreed, compared to 87% for those currently on mat leave. Those already back at work hugely stressed the importance of mental health support (over double the amount felt this was of importance) – having already themselves faced that transition back to work.
But others see this an economic cost society can ill afford at this time. That new parents need to accept the situation they find themselves in, with everyone paying the price in a different way.
For me the key questions to ask are, how is Covid affecting children’s development, what impact is it having on the mental health or parents, and hence their children, and what can we be doing at this unprecedented time to help.
1) Covid is having a detrimental impact on children’s development
A lack of bonding and learning opportunities are the main developmental issue facing babies and pre-schoolers at the moment. They are not doing normal life – going to the shops, meeting family and friends, or if they have siblings, they don’t even have mums undivided attention whilst older siblings are at school. Babies learn so much from faces and the environment, and right now there is no variation.
Worryingly a few parents in the survey said their child was now scared seeing the faces / hearing the voices of people outside their immediate family. Given babies learn from faces this is really worrying.
2) Lockdown is having a hugely negative impact on maternal mental health, and in turn, childrens’ mental health.
78% of the parents we surveyed felt lockdown had had significantly negative effects on their mental health.
There are currently two main reasons for this. Firstly parents are lacking any support systems – from wider family, friends and peers. And secondly many parents are finding themselves in the impossible situation of working full-time whilst homeschooling or caring full-time.
One parent said:
|“It has pushed us to the brink. We have had to work almost as if it was BAU but looking after our son full time too. This is a crazy demand that is putting too much strains on parents and families and children are paying the price.”
And this is affecting children’s mental health as they are anxious due to their parents being highly stressed, often passing them back and forth between meetings. Parents who have no time for a break, no time to even talk to one-another, possibly with huge financial strains. Poor interactions are known to negatively effect children throughout their lifetime. So something needs to be done, and now.
3) The Government needs to support the mental health of parents, and the development of babies
Whilst it is imperative the government works out how to support parents – whether they are coming off maternity leave, or beyond that point – who are trying to work and look after their children at this tricky time, I feel we need to do something now that both helps parent’s mental wellbeing, and replicates the bonding, developmental and learning experiences that babies are missing, being unable to explore the world outside their four walls.
Whilst many normal life experience can’t be had now, adults have become adept at replicating interactions through zoom chats and phone calls. We need to replicate this for our children. We don’t just sit watching TV all day to feel like we have interacted, so we can expect children to develop social skills watching youtube?
4) Attending baby classes was the top thing parents felt that they needed right now to help maintain their mental wellness
One parent said:
“The importance of baby groups & activities on parental mental health cannot be underestimated – and poor mental health can have a negative effect on bonding with your baby. All of the advice on how to deal with feeling low / anxious post natally is around socialising, finding your “tribe” to find solidarity with other parents, getting outside, exercising, having someone else look after the baby for a short time to have some “me time” – all of which is difficult at the present time (especially for those with other children)”
And they are of course fundamental in helping children to develop. Additionally they will help (as best as we can right now), to socialise children if they do need to head to an unfamiliar nursery for their parent to start working.
As an organisation with mental wellness of parents at the core of its mission, we at Happity have worked with class providers to develop an interative class format that is the next best alternative to in-person classes.
Happity interactive classes happen live, with a small number of families all able to see each other to participate in a class. Families are encouraged to stick with a regular timeslot and get to know other participants in their class, or invite friends to join with them.
Once parents try these interactive classes, an overwhelming majority find them to be hugely beneficial and of much more valuable than the free options they are currently being promoted. But until they try them they don’t understand the difference of a truly interactive class, or don’t understand the benefits for their families mental health.
One parent said:
“The interactive classes have been the most helpful as we’ve had opportunities to talk with other mums and feel less alone. We can also consult about baby behaviour and feel reassured that our children are developing in the realms of normal compared to other babies.”
So, to help parents in trying out interactive classes we are leading a #HappityTogether charity week for Mental Health Week (wc 18th May) where many classes will cost just £1, and proceeds donated to PANDAS – the UK’s largest parental mental health charity. The classes will be up to book soon at www.happity.co.uk, and we will share more information on this soon.
5) Other areas parents wanted the government to help were:
- Mental Health support for parents and children now and after covid (27%)
- Interactive classes funded by the government (12%)
- Opening of classes/parks ASAP for families only (10%)
- Reopening of schools/nurseries ASAP (10%)
- Video calls with Midwives/Health Visitors (5%)
6) What’s next?
I have submitted a paper to the Government regarding supporting parents with the mental health, and promoting (or even funding) the provision of interactive classes as these are most beneficial for parents and children alike.
We have also created another survey, focusing more on interactive classes as this is what they would like us to input on next. Please find the survey here and pass onto parents to fill out and have their say when we submit a proposal to Government.
These solutions will support parents’ mental health and support the development of babies and children. This will reduce the need for huge amounts of mental support now and for the years, if not decades to come. The cost of perinatel mental health is estimated to be £8.1bn per year per cohort. The figure for this cohort of babies is going to be significantly higher. And with 70% of this cost attributed not to the mother’s recovering, but to supporting their child throughout their life, this is something we need to investigate financially if not morally.
Mothers and children might seem a luxury to invest in given the challenges our economy and services face. But enabling this major section of society to function effectively will have a large effect on society, the economy, and services more widely than just the narrow experience of mums and babies in the short term.