Life

Why having the support of other mothers can really help new mums to cope

Experienced mums supporting pregnant and new mums is a great way to help them, say Netmums and NCT. Lisa Salmon reports

Mum-to-mum support during pregnancy and in early parenthood has the potential to improve mental health and wellbeing, says the NCT

HAVING a baby can be the most joyful experience of your life. Quickly followed, in some cases, by the most lonely, scary and bewildering experience.

And while some mums or mums-to-be may never feel the negative side of parenting, for others it can be all-consuming and lead to anxiety and postnatal depression.

Such parents often feel alone, with no-one to turn to – but as well as medical professionals, there's an army of mums waiting to help through schemes such as those run by both the National Childbirth Trust (nct.org.uk) and Netmums (netmums.com).

Anne-Mare O'Leary, editor-in-chief at Netmums, explains: "The key driver of chat in the Netmums forum is bewildered parents, parents-to-be and would-be parents, who desperately need answers to questions.

"Whether the question is how to survive morning sickness or how to get their baby to sleep, people always trust the first-hand knowledge of others above all else when it comes to anything parenting-related, and they frequently tell us it's their support they find most valuable.

"It's why we invest so heavily in our team of parent supporters – parents who we train to offer help to others in need in our forum, be that a kind word or directing them to support services in their area. Parents need other parents."

The NCT runs peer support through Bumps and Babies groups, Parents in Mind schemes, and Birth and Beyond Community Support, and Sarah McMullen, NCT director of parent services, says: "We've seen that mum-to-mum support during pregnancy and in early parenthood has the potential to improve mental health and wellbeing and reduce loneliness and isolation."

Here, McMullen outlines how mum-to-mum support can help mums-to-be and new mums:

:: Helps beat isolation and loneliness

Being a new mum can be a challenging experience, both emotionally and physically, especially if you don't have a support network of friends going through similar experiences.

NCT's network of volunteers give their time to help beat loneliness and isolation by supporting parents. Some volunteers receive additional training to be peer supporters for expectant and new mums at greater risk of isolation, and Parents in Mind peer support volunteers have personal experience of perinatal mental health issues, and are trained to support other mums experiencing similar issues.

By offering a kind, empathetic and listening ear, peer supporters help other women by providing a non-judgmental space to talk through their problems and meet other local mums.

:: Increases access to local services

Helping to combat isolation, peer supporters can signpost and accompany women to services that may help them, thus connecting mothers with their local communities and specialist support.

For example, peer support can help single mums find a support group so they can be around other new mums facing the same challenges, or find playgroups in a specific language, making it easier for non-English speaking mums to have the confidence to talk to other mums with similar-age babies.

:: Improves confidence and self-esteem

Bringing new mums out of isolation and helping them integrate into community services with their babies can improve their confidence and self-esteem.

It can be daunting for new mothers to walk into a playgroup or a breastfeeding workshop, especially if English isn't their first language or if they're feeling anxious or down since giving birth.

Simply having their peer supporter with them in the beginning can give them the confidence they need to get their foot over the door and start to engage in services that will enhance their quality of life.

:: Improves mental and emotional wellbeing

Maternal mental health issues such as depression and anxiety affect at least one in 10 women during pregnancy or early parenthood. Many women don't get the support they need and suffer in silence, often until reaching crisis point.

The Parents in Mind initiative offers emotional support for women experiencing poor mental health during pregnancy or within the first two years of birth. Women can be referred by a health professional, or they can self-refer. Mums who've experienced similar mental health issues are trained as peer supporters to offer a listening ear, giving emotional support and signposting women to other community mental health services.

NCT, in conjunction with City, University of London, found mothers with emotional difficulties who accessed peer support showed improvements in their mental health and wellbeing, with a significant reduction in anxiety and depression.

"Finding other mothers who felt how I felt was a huge relief," admits Lauren Fox, a mum who was supported by a Parents in Mind volunteer. "Peer support made what I was going through seem a lot more normal. It stopped me from feeling ashamed, as though I had to hide it."

:: It benefits peer supporters too

Peer supporters are offered a chance to develop their skills through training, which can help build confidence they may have lost since having a baby. Many mums on the program have had difficult journeys, and becoming a peer supporter can help them on their motherhood rollercoaster.

A Parents in Mind volunteer explains: "I wanted to help one mum go through a terrible time and not be alone. I wanted to reach out and just let one mum know she had someone by her side. Yes, she was still going to be going through a horrid time. However, she wasn't alone, like I had been.

"I've found my place in the world and I finally feel my postnatal depression was for a reason."

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