Becoming a parent is a blessing that brings much joy as well as many challenges. And for any parent, having friends and family to share the good moments and the harder times is important. Friends who are parents themselves provide a wealth of advice and experience for new parents and can fill the spaces between other sources of information.
It's worrying then that in our new research we found a significant proportion of parents saying they regularly feel cut off from friends and other sources of support. A quarter (24%) of the 2,000 parents said they were always or often lonely. This is troubling to see because it means that parents are missing out on the emotional and practical care that can make a difference to them and their children.
For parents who don't have a social network it can be daunting to build one. They may have moved for work, or they may be estranged from their family. Loneliness can knock people's confidence and send them into a deepening cycle in which it becomes harder to make friends. Services like our children's centres can help break this. They offer a warm and non-judgemental place to drop in for advice and to see what's available without committing to any longer term involvement. The group sessions on offer like baby massage classes and "stay and play" aren't just opportunities for parents to bond with and learn about their children, they are also opportunities to meet other parents, share those worries and fears about parenting and start making friends. They feed into and complement "harder hitting" programmes like parenting classes. Between professional help and stronger social networks, parents are better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them.
Many issues faced by families can be dealt with more easily if they're caught early, but if parents don't know where to go for help then their difficulties can grow until they need more urgent action. Problems like getting children to sleep or eat well, coping with health issues or trouble with jobs and housing can all become crises if left too long, and have lasting effects on the wellbeing of both children and their parents. Getting people through the door of services like children's centres is the first step to making sure they have a lifeline if crisis hits.
A parent who exemplifies this is Susan, a 37 year old mother of a young baby from Worcestershire. Susan had a difficult pregnancy and birth and developed postnatal depression. She felt isolated because she couldn't drive for six weeks after giving birth and didn't know many people who were also pregnant or had young babies. After a few weeks of this Susan tried going to her local children's centre, run by Action for Children. She now attends regular sessions for new parents and says "getting out of the house and going to the centre gives me a sense of achievement and it stops me sitting at home feeling alienated."
So if you are a parent who is feeling isolated, or know someone who is affected, don't be afraid to reach out for help. It's never too late to start making friends and never too early to seek support for you and your children.