Early intervention is essential in giving babies the best possible start

Prevention of harm is possible but we need better early support for parents, says Sherry Malik

Early intervention is something of a sector buzzword – and it's gained momentum in recent years. As understanding of pregnancy and babyhood has grown, so too has the 'early intervention' rhetoric.

mother and baby in garden

Early intervention - identifying and supporting the most at risk families in our community at the earliest stage – is critical to giving a baby the best possible start in life. But what really brings it home is seeing this 'rhetoric' in reality.

I met Kelly* at the end of her Baby Steps sessions, we watched a video of her enjoying moments of total love and connection with her baby. It was an entirely different experience to her first pregnancy, she told me. As a young teenager, her baby had been taken into care and eventually adopted. This time, she had a new found self-belief that she could be a good mother and the programme had 'helped her get it right this time'.

All Babies Count

At NSPCC, we believe that All Babies Count. We know that early intervention during this period can - and does - transform life outcomes. Neuroscience, developmental psychology and the emerging body of evidence surrounding pregnancy and the first year of life all point to one answer: prevention is possible. The evidence presents an overwhelming moral, social and economic case for early intervention services.

Pregnancy and the first year of life is a critical life stage – in the first 18 months of life babies experience a period of incredibly rapid growth and development. An astonishing 700 connections are created in their brains every second as they constantly interpret and learn from the world that we create around them.

Abuse and neglect in early childhood can cause lasting harm

Every baby needs love, care and nurture to thrive. But babies, so vulnerable and reliant on their primary care givers, can be particularly susceptible to damage from abuse and neglect. Early adversity, often a repercussion of domestic abuse, substance misuse or the chronic mental illness of a parent, can cause profound harm and cast a long shadow.

Exposure to such maltreatment can overload a baby's stress response, with lifelong consequences. This toxic stress – a baby's 'fight or flight' stress response to maltreatment - can negatively impact their brain architecture and psychological and behavioural development. And it's this kind of damage that reverberates - undermining the parenting abilities of those children when they in turn become adults.

Becoming a parent offers a 'window of opportunity'

The transition to parenthood should be one of great joy, but it can also be an extremely difficult time for some mums and dads. However, pregnancy does offer a critical 'window of opportunity' when parents, who are usually trying to do the best for their baby, can be particularly receptive to advice and support. This is the ideal time to offer support and help parents lay the foundations for their baby's future.

Helping improve outcomes for babies

To improve outcomes for the most vulnerable babies, it's of paramount importance that early intervention services are built on a rigorous evidence base. That's why we're running programmes that bring new evidence-based models from around the world and apply them on the ground.

We help parents develop secure and healthy relationships with their child
We often work with parents whose main obstacle is their own experience of childhood trauma and neglect, and who are tackling challenges of their own.

We work with young first-time mums
We support them to develop positive and secure bonds with their babies and help them recognise and respond to their baby's feelings and needs.

We work with local hospitals, children's centres and health centres 
We help prepare parents for the stress they might feel when their baby cries by teaching them coping mechanisms.

Our Better Start partnership in Blackpool, funded by a 10 year investment in early intervention from the Big Lottery Fund, aims to tackle the root causes of developmental inequality such as alcohol, domestic violence and social isolation. We're working with local parents to develop a bespoke programme for the community.

Working directly with children and families

What we've learned

Across the country these high-quality, evidence-based services are helping to create safer, more nurturing environments for infants – and what we're learning can help many more families.

New findings from an evaluation of our relationship-based perinatal education programme, Baby Steps suggest it can support parents in being better equipped to provide sensitive, responsive care to their babies, as parents reported decreased anxiety, improved relationship satisfaction with their partners and babies, and improved birth outcomes such as reported reductions in premature birth, low birth weight and caesarean sections.

But we can't do this on our own. We would love to work with new partners to make this programme available to many more families across the UK.

Our evidence and impact

Becoming a parent is a challenging time for almost all mums and dads, but for some the difficulties can be overwhelming. Add in the context of mental health problems, problems with drugs and alcohol or other adversities, and these difficulties are further exacerbated.

Our'Spotlight' reports put focus on the real issues that real families face during this time and raise awareness of particularly vulnerable groups. In partnership with Barnardo's, our Spotlight report on the criminal justice system launching this month highlights the 'invisibility' of babies affected by the criminal justice system. And launching later this month, our Spotlight report on homelessness, in partnership with the Anna Freud Centre, highlights the serious impact unstable housing can have on families.

Improving the lives of vulnerable babies and families across the UK requires a cultural shift toward early intervention - the NSPCC is calling for better early support for parents during this period to ensure that all babies are safe and able to thrive.

Seeing early intervention first hand with Kelly and her baby, it's clear that timing is everything. There is an urgent necessity to act now and translate the rhetoric into reality. Achieving real change demands collaborative working, innovative service design and delivery, and crucially – a belief that it's never too early, and never too late.


Names have been changed to protect identities. Any photographs are posed by models.