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The University of Southampton

Expecting mums and dads unready for parenthood – children experts warn

Published: 26 May 2023
Mothers and fathers left unprepared
Mothers and fathers left unprepared for parenthood by government health failures

Expectant mothers and fathers are being “failed” by the UK government’s public health plans leaving them unprepared for parenthood, a new report has warned.

The review by Children’s Alliance, with the University of Southampton, found that women and men are unaware of how poor personal health can impact their babies’ early development.

Many are overweight and still smoking or drinking at the start of pregnancy, it cautioned.

Findings also show that public health messages about protecting infants before birth are often overlooked by frontline professionals and not taught by the national school curriculum.

The report’s authors are now calling for preconception care in the UK – which supports women prior to pregnancy and parenthood – to be included at all stages of the Government’s health strategy.

Lead author Helen Clark from Children’s Alliance said fixing preconception care would leave a worthy legacy for whichever political party puts it in their election manifesto.

She added: “Studies have shown us that parents who practice good health prior to and in pregnancy give their children the best start to life and are more likely to be healthier growing up.

“Throwing money at outdated public health policies won’t work. Improving preconception care is the smart 21st-century approach the NHS should take – indeed a 'revolution' that will cut future waiting lists and won't break the bank either.”

The new Preconception Care Strategy was jointly created by Children’s Alliance together with health professionals and academics at several UK universities, including Southampton, to improve life chances for children.

Data highlighted in the study revealed mass inequalities among wealthy and disadvantaged families alike – with 24 per cent of stillbirths attributable to socioeconomic deprivation.

As many as nine out of 10 women in England enter pregnancy with at least one indicator that risks the health of the child, while only 27 per cent of mothers take folic acid before conceiving.

It also showed that people from low-income families are three-times more likely to smoke at the time of conception.

University of Southampton Professor Keith Godfrey, from the National Institute for Health Research Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, was a lead contributor to the report and said: “A child’s first 1,000 days is integral to their lifelong physical and mental health, development and resilience.

“Preparation for parenthood is crucial for levelling up opportunities for children and can help tackle disparities in their health. However, preconception care remains undervalued in the UK and the Government’s health policies have either failed to help people of reproductive age or are too late for women entering maternity care.”

The report’s authors have published a five-point action plan for government and health officials to improve the health of expectant parent:

  1. Make preconception care services available to everyone in the UK – to tackle spiralling inequality,
  2. Incentivise GPs, maternity services and family hubs to normalise preconception care – to improve pregnancy and post-natal care,
  3. Add preconception care to the curriculum to teach pupils the importance of healthy pregnancies,
  4. Move preconception healthcare into related health policies that address obesity and weight management, alcohol and smoking,
  5. Encourage large organisations – including the NHS – to give staff access to medical or health and wellbeing professionals before conception.

The Preconception Care Strategy can be read in full here .

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