Wendy Meredith Greater Manchester’s Director of Population Health, talks babies, early years and parenting experience – as the region puts more focus on getting children off to the best start in life.
If we were to do just one thing to really improve health outcomes in Greater Manchester, it would be investing in the very first early years of a child’s life. That starts before the child is born all the way through to nursery and starting school.
The evidence also shows that the development of early mental development is strongly associated with later educational success, better incomes and good health.
The foundations for virtually every aspect of development – physical, intellectual and emotional – are laid in early childhood. From birth to age
18 months, connections in the brain are created at a staggering rate of one million per second. And we know that children who have positive, supportive and nurturing relationships with a parent – when their brains are developing so fast – learn better and fare better later in life. Those early years are absolutely vital as it’s when all the brain connections are developed.
Sadly, evidence also shows that when a baby’s development falls behind during the first year of life, it is then much more likely to fall even further behind in subsequent years, than to catch up with those who have had a better start. At its most extreme, lack of attachment can lead to a lack of empathy and even criminal behaviour.
Pregnancy and the birth of a child is a critical window of opportunity when parents are especially receptive to advice, support and guidance.
All parents want to do their absolute best for their children. But, sometimes unexpected events or circumstances mean they struggle to cope.
Our Start Well Strategy will ensure parents get the support they need to be the best possible parents they can be.
In Greater Manchester we fully appreciate both the evidence and the need to focus on those pivotal early years. That’s why we have introduced and developed the Start Well: Early Years Strategy – which outlines the collaborative approach to commissioning and developing services in this area. This partnership working has been made smoother since the advent of devolution – where organisational barriers have come down so that people can work together.
On a wider level we also recognise how having happy and healthy children means that we are working towards the long-term prosperity and aspirations of the region. If we have higher numbers of school-ready children who are flourishing, eager to learn, able to share, and with good social skills they get off to the best start – so that they will have the skills to become fulfilled members of the community and contribute to and benefit from the prosperity of Greater Manchester.
In practical terms this strategy sees the commitment to removing some of the variation which currently exists. For example, instead of having 23 different early years assessments across the region, we have developed an eight-stage process which is parent-led.
We also have an agreed range of evidence-based interventions – or ways of helping parents with additional support. Again, instead of having over 300 different types of interventions, we have narrowed it to the 20 most effective processes.
Being a parent is the most important role you can have – but it isn’t easy.
I have two teenagers – but I can still remember how hard those early years were with sleepless nights and the constant exhaustion.
I was very lucky. I have a supportive partner and my Mum lived very close by – and she had four children – so she was a great help to me.
But, not everyone has that type of support or guidance that helps them to bond with their baby. And that attachment – which is at the very heart and foundation of how a child will thrive in future life – is something that we can and must put at the centre of our services.