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First steps: how new investments in early years support signal a move in the right direction


3 Nov 2021

Dr Kirsten Asmussen, EIF head of what works for child development, highlights some positive signs in the spending review announcements of additional support for new parents and families with young children, though there remains a huge amount to do to make the most of this opportunity.

Last week we received welcome news that there will be a meaningful increase in the support made available to families in the UK, especially those with babies and young children. This is a significant win for early intervention, and builds on the important ideas set out in Andrea Leadsom’s early years healthy development review, which has effectively raised the profile of the need for early support. While this investment does not replace the early intervention funding lost over the past decade, it is a positive signal of commitment, and provides for a bundle of measures with the potential to provide valuable and effective support to more families, in more places, at the right time in people’s lives.

We are particularly pleased to learn that a good portion of this investment reflects recommendations that EIF has made previously, especially in our 2018 review, What works to enhance the Healthy Child Programme. One of our recommendations was to improve the support made available to mothers who want to breast feed. As we pointed out, breast milk is the baby’s best defence against a variety of infectious diseases, which include Covid-19. Unfortunately, breastfeeding rates are low in the UK in comparison to other countries, despite many mothers wanting to do so. We know that many mothers would welcome more support from a knowledgeable practitioner, and the evidence we reviewed shows that this support is most effective when it is offered within 48 hours of a baby’s birth. It is very pleasing to see that more and better breastfeeding support will now be available during this time, and this is one area where last week’s announcements are particularly welcome.

We are also glad to learn that substantial funds will be made available to increase parents’ access to evidence-based mental health support during the perinatal period. While the birth of a baby is a happy time for most families, sadly some will really struggle. In particular, some mothers will become depressed in the weeks following their baby’s birth, and up to 10 percent will remain depressed as their children grow older. This is why it is so important that parents have access to effective mental health therapies as soon as they need them, not only during the months before and after a baby’s birth, but in the years that follow.

Examples of effective support include universal mental health screening, which not only increases parents’ awareness about their mental health needs, but also helps them access effective treatments. These include interventions that focus on the parent–child relationship, as well as therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), that are offered to parents individually. Antidepressants have also been found to be helpful for parents experiencing depression if offered after the baby is born.

It is also good to learn that the government has now formally pledged £82 million to set up 75 Family Hubs. Family Hubs are an important opportunity to provide support which improves a range of important outcomes for children and families, and crucially to reduce income-related development gaps, which we know open up early and have long-term effects. However, achieving these results isn’t guaranteed, and it is vital that these new hubs are well supported to identify what is likely to make the most difference and to deliver new approaches well. The new National Centre for Family Hubs, led by the Anna Freud Centre with EIF as an evidence partner, yesterday launched an initial set of resources to support areas setting up Family Hubs, which we hope will promote and enable the provision of effective, appropriate interventions that are well matched with local needs. These resources include a new Family Hubs development process, which builds on EIF and Anna Freud’s experience of working with local areas on multi-agency planning.

Of course, these new initiatives will only make a difference if there is a skilled workforce to deliver them. The UK already has excellent infrastructure in place, in the form of health visiting and midwifery, to ensure that effective services are available to families with young children. However, we know that these workforces have faced challenges in recent years, particularly around capacity, confidence and status. We therefore hope this renewed interest in the early years will be paralleled by renewed support for health visitors and midwives, so that they can reach the families who most need them and support them in the most effective way.

There is a huge amount to do to make the most of these investments, but together they mark a step in the right direction, and provide a new foundation to work from.

About the author

Dr Kirsten Asmussen

Kirsten is head of what works, child development, at EIF.