An infant’s first 1,001 days are critical for lifelong health – we must level up the opportunities for every newborn
We will break down the barriers that affect early years development and set out a vision for improving the support available to families
The party conference season is under way, and it feels very strange this year! But it’s still a great opportunity to put forward policy ideas that can make the world a better place. And nowhere can good policies have greater impact than in the critical period of life between conception and the age of two – the 1,001 critical days.
My mum was a therapist and a midwife, and she first sparked my interest in understanding more about the early years. She introduced me to a charity (the Oxford Parent Infant Project) that helps those families struggling to form a secure bond with their new babies. Before I knew it, I was chairing the charity, and later I set up a similar charity in Northamptonshire as well as the national charity PIP UK. Today there are many PIPs (parent infant partnerships) providing therapeutic support to families, with life-changing results for them and their babies.
Having experienced post-natal depression myself, I can testify how difficult it can be to cope as a new parent. It is an overwhelming experience, and while many manage just fine, far too many really struggle, and there is much we can do to provide better support.
The simple fact is that, for a new baby, the building blocks for lifelong emotional health are laid down in those 1,001 critical days, and what happens during that period can have a profound impact on the life chances of that infant.
One in five mums and one in 10 dads experience mental health problems during pregnancy and after birth, and up to 30% of domestic violence begins during pregnancy. Up to one in four babies in England are born into a family with mental health, substance misuse and/or domestic violence problems. Quite apart from the appalling impact on wellbeing and happiness, the financial impact on society is also great. It’s hard to precisely quantify the financial cost of this toxic group of perinatal issues but government research shows that not dealing with perinatal mental health problems alone comes at a cost of over £8bn a year.
We are just not doing enough to support new families in spite of the excellent efforts of health visitors, midwives, therapists and others. So I was delighted when I was appointed in July as the government’s Early Years Healthy Development Adviser, leading a major review into the current support and policy thinking around the early years. The plan is to consult widely with families, volunteers, charities, professionals, academics and parliamentarians and then to set out a new vision for support in the 1,001 critical days.
The review will address key issues such as disparities in low birth weight, social and emotional development in the early years, and how to prevent adverse childhood experiences from causing long-term harm. We will build on the government’s Prevention Green Paper, which committed to supporting parents and modernising the Healthy Child Programme for those in need. We will also use the research and findings from the Inter-Ministerial Group on Early Years that I chaired from 2018-19 under Theresa May’s government.
The review will look closely at what the key challenges have been for new parents during lockdown, and the key learning points to help shape government policy. We will also investigate how early years support can be better delivered, including using digital technology that may be hugely helpful to families.
The first phase of the review will complete by January 2021, where we will set out a vision for the 1,001 critical days that will promote the best start in life for every baby, regardless of their circumstances. The second phase, during 2021, will roll out the plans in England, with cross-government collaboration.
By providing world-class support in the 1,001 critical days, we can help to build future generations of healthier, happier, more emotionally secure adults.
Andrea Leadsom is Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire