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One size doesn’t fit all – the importance of understanding different support needs amongst parents of young children

Posted on 19 February 2013 by Paul Bradshaw, Head of ScotCen .
Tags: Growing up in Scotland


Becoming a parent for the first time is pretty daunting.  Pregnancy, birth and the early years are full of unknowns for new and prospective parents.  The latest findings published from the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS) provide some insight into the many issues faced by parents of 10 month old children in Scotland.

I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first son. We sat down to write a list of some of the things we would need to get before the impending arrival (we still have the list somewhere). She told me we would need ‘muslins’. “Muslins?” I enquired. My wife proceeded to tell me about the plain cotton fabric squares that came to serve a thousand purposes over the early period of both our sons' lives.  In fact, they’re still used today, but to clean school shoes rather than sticky hands.

This is obviously a light-hearted example, but there are some less trivial unknowns in early parenthood: what can’t you eat or drink during pregnancy? What’s going to happen at the birth? How often will the baby need fed? How long should he sleep? When will he start moving around?

In the not too distant past, childrearing was an inherent part of family and community life.  ‘Future’ parents were often involved, naturally and whilst children themselves, in the raising of other children whether they were younger siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews or neighbours.  Eventually, they would raise their own children.  By that time they were already fully acquainted with the knowledge and skills necessary to do so successfully.    Having largely moved away from this shared, extended family practice in modern Western society, the natural information, advice and support it supplied has dwindled but the need for that information, advice and support remains.

We know that when parents are well informed, well supported and confident in their abilities, their children have better outcomes.  And when children have better outcomes in the earliest stages of their lives, they tend to do better at the later stages too. To achieve an informed, supported and confident position, parents need to know where to find that information and support, be able to access it in a manner that suits or appeals to them and be comfortable doing so.This is a significant challenge for governments and other agencies involved in supporting parents as not only is there a large amount of information to share and a large number of parents to support, but different parents need different types of information and support delivered in different ways.

Most parents with young children do feel adequately informed and supported.  Findings from the GUS report show that 77% of parents with a child aged 10 months were either very or fairly satisfied with the information available to them about parenting and 72% were either very or fairly satisfied with the services available to support them as a parent.  But there is a minority who are less sure.  When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “It’s hard to know who to ask for help or advice about being a parent”, 19% of parents agreed.  27% agreed that it is “difficult to ask people for help or advice unless you know them really well” and 16% perceive a stigma attached to professional advice or support with parenting.  This uncertainty is higher amongst parents in more disadvantaged circumstances, often the groups who are in greatest need of additional support.

It’s also clear that parents access information in different ways.  For example, when we asked mothers what sources they had used for information or advice whilst pregnant, almost all of them said they had spoken to health professionals. This is a fairly obvious resource in this context of course. But 71% said they had used family or friends, 35% had used books or magazines and 55% had used the internet.  Many more had used other sources.  Just as perceptions vary amongst parents, so do the types of resources used.  Using the internet as a resource was much more common amongst older mothers and those with higher incomes and/or higher educational qualifications.

There are some common preferences amongst parents too, irrespective of their background characteristics.  When asked how they like to receive information or advice about parenting, the single method preferred by most (53%) parents was on a one-to-one basis from a professional such as a health visitor.  Although the proportion varied, this formed the dominant preference amongst all sub-groups of parents.

Encouragingly, the Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland already recognise these varied needs and preferences and are working towards meeting them. Over the last decade, they have supported the introduction of a range of legislation, policies and interventions focused on improving support for parents through the delivery of parenting advice and education. Such policies range from web-based resources and campaigns such as Play, Talk, Read and paper-based resources such as the Ready, Steady, Baby booklet, to more specialist parenting programmes delivered by trained practitioners such as Triple P, Mellow Parenting or the Family Nurse Partnership.  This commitment to better supporting parents was formalised through the publication of the National Parenting Strategy in October 2012.

There is some evidence from the GUS report that access to these resources is having an impact on parenting behaviours. Compared with 2005, a greater proportion of parents in 2011 read daily to their 10-month old child. Higher levels of accessing formal sources of support amongst parents in 2011 appear to explain this difference. It seems, therefore, that policy and practice has taken note of the considerable evidence, including that which has emerged from Growing Up in Scotland, and that things are moving in the right direction. Nevertheless, without also tackling the structural inequalities that affect families, improving parenting support will have only limited impact on parent and child outcomes.

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