New parents in Blackpool will now get eight appointments with a health visitor following a seven-figure cash injection and a complete overhaul of the system.
It’s been done to help tackle some of the problems resort youngsters face, including high levels of obesity, growing up around drink or drugs, or around domestic violence.
Blackpool Better Stay, which has pumped £1m of its £45m lottery funding into the transformation, said it hopes the move will reap rewards in the future.
Merle Davies, director at Blackpool’s Centre for Early Child Development, said: “What we hope to see if an improvement in key developmental standards around speech and language, diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and that children are arriving at school ready to learn.”
Until now, parents received five visits from a healthcare professional – at 28 weeks of pregnancy, shortly after birth, and when the baby is three to five weeks old, six to eight weeks old, and two to two-and-a-half years old.
Blackpool became the first in England to increase the number of visits from the statutory five to eight, with extra slots now planned for three to four months old, nine to 12 months old, and three to three-and-a-half years old.
My family isn’t here, so having someone to talk to and having someone to help is so reassuring, especially with my first baby.
Parents will now be encouraged to take more control of the sessions in a bid to build trust, and tackle the issues the next generation faces through education.
Some, Merle said, are currently told by their parents to smoke during pregnancy because it’ll lead to smaller babies – and they don’t necessarily realise the health implications of doing so. Others suffer from extreme stress linked to domestic abuse, poor quality housing, and abject poverty.
But Merle was clear the service is there to help parents, referring them to the right services where needed, saying it was ‘carrot’ rather than ‘stick.’
“A lot of the work we do is working with parents to help them support their children better,” she said.
Health visitors have been trained to carry out new assessments, including ‘behaviour activation’, which teaches families coping techniques and is similar to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and ‘Routine enquiry into adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)’, which looks at breaking the chain of problems being passed down from generation to generation.
Another approach, called ‘Trauma Informed’, aims to tackle the root causes of problems such as alcoholism or binge-eating by examining what causes them, while a new speech and language assessment has been brought in to spot any delays in development.
That will work in conjunction with the new ‘Talk with Me’ service Better Start has commissioned.
“We are hoping, within the next few years, we will see these adverse experiences reducing,” Merle said.
“A lot of our families welcome support if it’s given in the right way. One of the things we have done is ask parents what they want.
“They wanted more access to health visiting, and they talked about them being able to say what their needs are.
“By doing this we hope to build a relationship where both parents can talk to the health visitor about things that are really bothering them.
“If they have baby blues they can have an honest discussion and get support.”
Pauline Tschobotko, head of the families division at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals, the trust that runs the Victoria Hospital, said she was ‘proud’ of the staff who have ‘embraced the chances’.
“They have worked with families in Blackpool and Better Start to develop a service that should better meet the need of our community,” she said.
And Merle added: “We have excellent health visitors – really outstanding – in Blackpool, which is why we have been able to do this.”
To find out how parents felt about the changes, the service spoke to pregnant mums at Baby Steps antenatal group, based at the Talbot and Brunswick Children’s Centre.
First-time mum Georgia Barnard said: “I think the additional visits will be good – being able to see your health visitor more often will help build a bond. And I like that the visits lead right up to school age – I think that will be really good for making sure kids are ready.”
Eva Syrkova, also expecting her first child, added: “I think [the visits] are a good thing, because as you see someone more, you trust them more.
“My family isn’t here, so having someone to talk to and having someone to help is so reassuring, especially with my first baby.
“I really think the additional visits will be good for building a relationship with my health visitor.”
What problems do youngsters in Blackpool face?
Around three-quarters of Blackpool residents aged over 16, and more than a third of 11-year-olds in the town, are overweight or obese, The Gazette has previously reported.
And a report by the town’s director of public health, Dr Arif Rajpura, said obesity rates here are increasing faster than the national average, with approximately 83,500 adults being overweight.
Meanwhile, just over a quarter of reception-age schoolchildren are overweight, compared to just over a fifth nationally.
Dr Rajpura warned: “Obesity is a serious public health problem for the town and contributes significantly to poor health.
“Not only does obesity result in an increase in chronic disease leading to distress and sickness, there are significant impacts for the broader economy of Blackpool through disability, unemployment and burden on the social care system.”
Around one in three children are also living in poverty – with the resort’s 32.1 per cent way above the national average of 20.1.
Levels of child poverty have risen steadily since 2006 and, in 2014, it rose by 2.6 six per cent in Blackpool, compared to 1.5 per cent across England.
A report found the impact can be seen ‘in all areas of the child’s life, including their education, health, and future choices’.
Youngsters from poorer backgrounds lag behind at all stages of education, while poverty is also linked to a higher risk of both illness and premature death.
They are twice as likely to live in bad housing, which can affect physical and mental health, and, although they are more likely to have a play area locally, they are often worse off – depriving children of exercise.
The resort also has one of the highest rates of looked-after children in the country compared to other local authorities, the highest rate nationally for hospital admissions due to alcohol abuse, and recently topped a league of shame for heroin and morphine deaths.