Inside The UK's Baby Banks Gearing Up For Their Busiest Winter Yet

Rationing nappies, cutting the feet off baby grows – how some parents are getting by as the cost of living crisis deepens.
Inside the Little Village baby bank in Tooting, London
Natasha Hinnde
Inside the Little Village baby bank in Tooting, London

A heavily pregnant woman sits in the corner of the Little Village baby bank in Tooting, south London, carefully folding a pile of baby clothes she’s been given.

She is one of thousands of mothers who will rely on charity this year to give their babies the start to life they deserve.

Like food banks, baby banks provide essential items for parents of young children aged 0-5 years old. Nappies, clothes, pushchairs, cots, breastfeeding equipment and toys fill every bit of floor space at the Little Village HQ.

Since launching in 2016, the charity has helped some 17,000 children. However as more and more people fall on harder times, it is noticing a huge increase in demand.

Tawakalitu Idris, 41, is almost nine months pregnant and visiting the baby bank with her husband and daughter in the hope it will provide her with much-needed supplies for her impending arrival.

It’s quiet when I walk in and Idris is sitting calmly in a chair while a volunteer rushes to and fro collecting items for her – there are the essentials like clothes and nappies, but also a breastfeeding pillow, baby bath, bottle steriliser, cot and pushchair.

Her little girl is choosing some school shoes with her father, and – pleased as punch – promptly bounds over to her mum to show them off. The shoes are secondhand, but in as good as new condition. This is something that really matters to the charity, says a spokesperson. They want those receiving the items to feel like they are gifts, rather than hand-me-downs.

While Idris and her husband both work in NHS hospitals, bringing home roughly £2,700 a month, they simply cannot afford the supplies they need for their new baby on top of mounting living costs.

This woman, who spends her days caring for the elderly on a hospital ward, is now relying on the kindness of others to make sure her baby has the essentials it needs when it is born.

People can browse the children's clothes and choose what they'd like, rather than simply being given a bag of items.
Natasha Hinde
People can browse the children's clothes and choose what they'd like, rather than simply being given a bag of items.

“In terms of our income and the way things are at the moment, we don’t have enough to purchase good [quality], new baby things,” she tells me. “We have the option where we can get it from Little Village and use it, and then return it back when we’ve finished with it.”

It can cost anywhere upwards of £1,000 to buy new baby supplies, especially bulky and expensive essentials like cots and pushchairs, and this is spare cash that many families just don’t have.

With food shops and energy bills rising, alongside crippling housing and childcare costs, more and more parents are having to make impossible decisions as to where their money goes.

For some families, that means their babies are sleeping on the floor because they can’t afford a cot. For others, it means not leaving their homes because they have no money for a pushchair.

A study by the University of York estimates 45 million Brits will be forced into fuel poverty and struggle to pay energy bills this winter. Meanwhile two thirds of all UK households – or 18 million families – will be plunged into financial precarity by January due to soaring inflation, which is already at a 40-year record high.

“Anecdotally we are seeing a lot of families where at least one of the parents is in work and the wages just don’t pay enough to keep up with the cost of living, inflation and childcare costs.”

- Emma Gibbs, Little Village spokesperson

This is the second time Idris has sought support from Little Village. The first time, she says, their family was “destitute” as both she and her husband were out of work. Someone from their local food bank referred them to get help paying for their gas and bills, and because she was pregnant at the time, she was told about Little Village and how they could support her.

Without such services, Idris says it would’ve caused her “a lot of stress, mentally and physically”.

At 36 weeks pregnant, it’s important for the sake of her health and her baby’s that she doesn’t dwell too much on the rising costs, but worry is still bubbling away in the background. “With the situation with the country at the moment, it’s really challenging and really stressful mentally,” she says, before adding, “but we just need to take it easy.”

She and her husband are always thinking about budgets, she says, with the top priority being able to feed and clothe her family. They’re already had to cut back, for example preserving water when washing up, and they’re teaching their four children that it’s more about “what they need, rather than what they want”.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle but we let them understand why that’s happening,” she says. These can be difficult conversations when they come home from school and reveal their friends are going on holiday. “They ask where are we going for holiday, and we try to let them know that we can’t go because we haven’t got enough money.”

Baby products, toys and towels fill the shelves of Tooting's baby bank.
Natasha Hinde
Baby products, toys and towels fill the shelves of Tooting's baby bank.

Coping with the costs of bringing one baby into this world is difficult enough, but when life blesses you with two it can mean double the outlay – and when you have no income at all, things can swiftly become unbearable.

Diana* and her husband are out of work and living with relatives. They are visiting the baby bank today with their young twins – two beautiful baby girls – who were born prematurely in January this year.

The couple are getting more supplies for their babies, who have grown out of all of the items they were originally gifted from the baby bank back in January.

All four of them are sleeping in the sitting room of a relative’s home in Stockwell, she tells me, because they have no money to be able to afford their own place.

“Life is easy if you’ve got the money, but if you haven’t got the money, life is hard,” she says.

When her babies were born, the pair relied on food banks, however this support has now stopped and they’re relying on their relatives to keep them fed and provide a roof over their heads. “If it wasn’t for the charity, maybe I would’ve died,” says Diana.

“Life is easy if you’ve got the money, but if you haven’t got the money, life is hard.”

- Diana, mum of two

Today they are collecting some more clothes for their daughters, as well as a walker, nappies, bottle-feeding equipment, shoes and toys.

Families are referred to the baby bank for numerous reasons – whether that’s low income, mental health problems, homelessness or fleeing domestic violence. Around 22% of the people helped by Little Village are seeking asylum and 5% are victims of trafficking.

Emma Gibbs, a spokesperson for the charity, says the first five years of a child’s life is the most expensive time for new parents. It’s also the most critical period in a child’s life in terms of development. Baby banks exist to ensure these children get the start in life they deserve.

Many of the families have nothing, she says. “In winter we’ll see children come in who don’t have a coat,” she says. “We see babies who’ve had the feet cut off their sleep suits because their parents can’t afford a new one.”

Some of the families – like Diana’s – are sharing beds to keep warm. Others are rationing nappies down to one or two a day because they can’t afford to use more. “It’s devastating,” says Gibbs.

“Anecdotally we are seeing a lot of families where at least one of the parents is in work and the wages just don’t pay enough to keep up with the cost of living, inflation and childcare costs.”

ImagesBazaar via Getty Images

This year alone, the charity has answered 2,580 requests for support from struggling parents across London – and it predicts this figure is only going to rise come winter, when the worst effects of the cost of living crisis take hold.

A survey conducted earlier this year in February, way before the latest eye-watering energy bill predictions came out, found 98% of UK baby banks expect 2022 to be their busiest year yet, citing rising living costs as the main reason.

Little Village expects to support 1,000 more children this year as a result of the cost of living crisis. It has already supported 2,586 under-fives this year through its baby banks across London.

The charity is now urging people to support them with donations of high quality (not stained, broken or tatty) baby clothing, but especially “big ticket” items like prams and cots. Monetary donations are also appreciated, as the charity needs to buy packs of nappies and new mattresses for the cots.

Despite facing such hardship, Idris remains quietly positive that they’ll get through whatever hurdles they face in the coming months. “There have been a lot of struggles in the past few months but, as someone who believes in God, we just need to be thankful for where you are and what you have,” she says.

“So irrespective of where you are at the moment, at least when you look back you can say ‘ok I was able to push through these hard times.’ I think that’s the most important thing and that is what will keep us going as a family.”

*Some names have been changed to offer anonymity to interviewees