October 25, 2021
Parents 1st is a UK charity using collective experience to enable parents to recognise and build on self-identified strengths. In this blog, Celia and Nicole share learning, resources, and guides for setting up your own peer support programme.
Parents 1st has over 30 years’ experience of developing peer support programmes in disadvantaged communities across the UK. Drawing on strengths within the community, peer support works alongside professional services and offers a unique contribution in helping navigate the life changing experience of becoming a parent. Peer supporters aim to engage with vulnerable women as early as possible in pregnancy, continue support through labour and birth, and the early months of parenting. Programmes operate in partnership with health professionals –particularly midwives and perinatal mental health nurses. A volunteer to employment pathway enables experienced volunteers to progress onto becoming peer support workers, trainers and coordinators.
Well trained and supervised Community Parents “walk the journey” alongside vulnerable parents, building trusting relationships. They aim to shine a light along the way, supporting parents to find their own path.
Some parents can feel wary of professionals or may lack a continuum of care through seeing different midwives or doctors. Poor physical and emotional wellbeing at this time can negatively impact both parents and babies so it is crucial parents feel able to trust and confide. Early support can help prevent escalation of need; issues can be identified earlier, and the right support can be offered. The principles of active listening, mutual respect and self-help are key in peer support. Informative resources are shared with parents who explore, reflect on and achieve ongoing self-selected goals relating to their own daily lives. This helping process enables parents to recognise and build on self-identified strengths. Working with parents to identify goals and supporting them to achieve them not only empowers and increases their confidence as parents, but also supports healthier pregnancies, improved emotional wellbeing, better birth and parenting outcomes.
Peer supporters aim to help parents to make informed choices, whilst respecting personal choices and previous traumas. For example, one expectant mother who was supported by our Essex programme, shared with her volunteer that she had tried to breastfeed her first baby but had found it painful and difficult. The mother also told the volunteer she felt that mothers are pressured to breastfeed even if they don’t want to and that she found talking to professionals about breastfeeding difficult. The mother asked the volunteer to share information about breastfeeding which the volunteer did in a very non-judgemental and low-key way. Towards the end of her pregnancy the mother felt more confident about giving breastfeeding another try.
Ultimately parenting choices belong to the parents to make and peer supporters are trained to not project their own experiences or agendas onto a mother. A mum in Essex when interviewed by Go East as part of a co-production consultation about local mental health services said:
"It is so important to handle breast feeding discussions sensitively. I felt that if I didn’t manage to breastfeed, I’d end up with a sick and stupid baby. I already felt worthless, so it didn’t matter for me, but I was so worried about letting my daughter down. I was so vulnerable to negative thinking."
Peer support offers a safe and reassuring place for positive conversations to take place and aims to respect and recognise the pivotal role of parents as experts. Whilst one mother may thrive breastfeeding her child, another will struggle badly which can lead to frustration, anger and grief. This form of trauma can stay with them for many years, leaving a profound impact on a mother’s mental health. Having the opportunity to build a trusting relationship before birth and chat through any issues in preparation can make all the difference. If, as is often the case with babies, things don’t go to plan, peer supporters can help mum and baby to navigate issues and support her both practically and emotionally throughout their journey, respecting parents’ decisions and listening and signposting to additional support if needed to co-create an individualised care plan that works for them as a family.
The evidence is clear that quality peer support can lead to better outcomes for parents and babies, and we want more families to benefit from peer support and the help it can provide. So, we created a website for anyone involved in or interested in perinatal peer support to share their knowledge, expertise, processes and resources. The website takes people through 5 key stages of planning, designing, and developing a Community Parent initiative. Fundamental to success is the ongoing dialogue between local parents and professionals about what’s already there, what’s needed and how peer support could make a difference.
When setting up a new peer support initiative, we recommend in depth research to understand your local area and the need. Stakeholders should include local parents, midwives, health visitors, early years workers, social workers and voluntary sector partners.
Your local environment will need to support the set up and delivery of a new peer support initiative. This includes not only the views of local parents but also the attitude of professionals, the fit with what’s already going on locally, and the way services are funded and commissioned. Achieving your desired outcomes will involve a co-design process with your stakeholders.
The Parents 1st UK website can take you step by step through this process in the ‘Guides’ section which is completely free to access. All you need to do is simply register as a member on www.parents1st.org.uk. There are hundreds of free resources to download and adapt to help you get a new initiative up and running or to develop an existing programme.
Once you've registered as a member on Parents 1st UK you can share ideas and best practice and ask for help from others using our many networking features on the website. One particular function is the option to join an existing 'Group Space' or set up your own. 'Group spaces' are an online space that facilitates collaborative group working. They can offer a more professional environment to social media, and it can be beneficial to join an existing community with similar goals. Find and invite others to join your space - either current members or new ones. ‘Community Voices’ is also an important feature of the site where parents and peer supporters share their experiences to help others understand the value of peer support and how it works.
We’re always happy to chat, whether it’s about setting up or developing a perinatal peer support initiative or how to make the most of our website.
There is a growing body of evidence of the impact of ‘warm parenting’, community empowerment, social capital and co-production approaches on health and emotional wellbeing using peer supporters drawn from the heart of local communities. Fundamental to the approach is recognising the strengths within communities, and building on these whilst transferring skills and knowledge between public services and the community at grass roots level. Below is a list of theories that underpin the Parents 1st Community Parent model.
a) Adult learning theory: the art and science of helping adults learn, based on a set of assumptions about how adults learn:
b) Social learning theory: people learn from one another through observation, imitation and modelling. This can be conscious or unconscious.
c) Self-efficacy theory (Bandura):the belief in one’s own ability to reach a desired goal; this is crucial to whether an attempt is made. Self efficacy influences how easily a person is able to change and adapt his or her behaviour. Self efficacy is affected by people’s previous experience, the attitudes of others, learning opportunities and the challenges they face. Practitioners can help build self efficacy by focusing on strengths and on what is working, by helping parents to look for solutions, by celebrating small achievements, by creating a safe, supportive learning environment and by respecting parents as experts in their own lives.
d) Bio-ecological theory(Bronfenbrenner): describes the relationship / interaction between an individual and society and how the different systems interact and impact on a child’s development from the individual, their family, community, and wider systems.
e) Evolutionary theory: in relation to children and parents this gives us an explanation of how powerful and deep bio-genetic drivers motivate mothers and fathers to care for and protect their children. The role of the peer supporter is to connect with these motivations as this is where the power to parent lies.
f) Social capital theory(Bourdieu): the collective/economic benefits that result from cooperation(networks) between individuals and groups.
Celia’s commitment to early prevention peer support began in Essex in 1990 when, working as a health visitor, she recognised that many parents feel fearful or wary of professionals. This is where co-production came in. Celia sought the views of the mothers on her caseload about what the barriers were and sought their ideas about how they could be overcome. The idea was put forward that a trustworthy (trained and supervised) experienced mother with relevant life experience might fill a gap and feel less threatening.
In response to this, Celia established a ‘Community Parent’ volunteer peer support programme. Drawing on the strengths of local mothers living in disadvantaged communities, she found them uniquely placed to offer a different kind of support to parents during pregnancy, birth and the early years. Working in partnership with the Community Parents gave the health visiting team profound insights into the needs of parents within the communities they served. It was a different way of working – an exchange of knowledge and skills. Some professionals were resistant at first. It was all about reassurance, a shared endeavour and building relationships.
Celia learnt an enormous amount from the Community Parents. It was a humbling experience that resulted in her dedicating the next 30 further years’ of her career to enabling similar initiatives to flourish. Many parents shared things with their Community Parent that they had never shared with a professional. Community Parents became intermediaries, helping parents to benefit from services available to them – often going with them for the first time to help build confidence and overcome fears of being judged.
The Essex programme became a national model of good practice and Celia began supporting other organisations to develop similar Community Parent programmes across the UK. Recognising the difficulties that many new initiatives face when getting started, Celia formed a new charity, Parents 1st UK, and placed all of the knowledge, expertise and resources that the Community Parent programmes use in daily practice, online on an Open-Source website. The aim is to utilise the collective experience of existing, sustainable programmes to help new programmes get established, enabling peer support to flourish across the UK.
Nicole joined the team in 2019, at the beginning of the Parents 1st UK journey. With a background of marketing, media and education this was an exciting opportunity to be a part of something from the start that could really make a difference.
As a mum of 2, there have been times in her own parenting journey where she could have benefited from peer support herself. Nicole has been both a teenage mum and a single mum but now happily co-parents with her husband. She firmly believes though that whatever your story, peer support is an invaluable resource in helping you navigate the transition to parenthood.
Co-production was a fairly new concept to Nicole. However the collaborative ways in which Parents 1st operates soon revealed its benefits. Collaboration is embedded throughout the organisation but within her role in particular, communications are generally worked on together, utilising collective skills and knowledge to the best advantage. Working in this way has been a revelation in the results that can be produced.