Preliminary figures from Public Health England for 2018-19, published yesterday, show 77 per cent of children received a 12-month review by the age of one. This compares with 75 per cent the previous year.
- One in four mothers unsure about how to wean their baby
- Health visitor numbers at their lowest since 2012
Further research by the NSPCC reveals that antenatal visits are particularly inconsistent with an estimated 38 per cent of families not receiving a health visit before the mother gives birth.
The figure is based on Freedom of Information responses from 32 of the 149 local authorities contacted which were able to share the number of families that were eligible for and received the antenatal visit from 1 April 2017 to 31 March 2018.
The NSPCC attributes the drop in visits to cuts to local authority budgets and fewer health visitors.
According to the Institute of Health Visiting (iHV), there was a 26 per cent fall in health visitors employed by the NHS operating nationwide between 2015 and 2019. Almost half of those still in the service are working with caseloads of more than 400 children each.
The iHV recommends a maximum of one health visitor to every 250 children to ensure a ‘safe service’.
In response, the NSPCC is launching a national campaign, ‘Fight for a Fair Start’, and calling on the Government to ensure all parents receive a minimum of five face-to-face visits undertaken by the same health visitor so perinatal mental health problems are quickly identified.
Research suggests that up to one in five mothers and one in ten fathers experience perinatal mental health problems, which can make it difficult for them to look after and bond with their baby, potentially affecting the child’s overall development.
The campaign, which is supported by Jo Malone London which funds direct services to new and prospective parents, is also calling for appropriate investment from the NHS to ensure all specialist community care teams are supported to deliver the ‘gold standard in care’, so families get the support they need no matter where they live.
In England, all families should receive five home visits from qualified health professionals, starting during pregnancy and continuing at regular intervals under their child reaches two and a half.
In comparison, Scotland offer 11 visits, Wales nine and Northern Ireland seven.
The Health and Social Care Committee has recommended that as part of a ‘refresh’ of the Healthy Child Programme, the Government sets out proposals for increasing the number of routine visits.
Almundena Lara, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said, ‘Health visitors are uniquely well-placed to recognise early signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties, but with a decline in staff numbers and rising family caseloads they are working under significant pressure.
‘It’s vitally important that all families receive a minimum of five face-to-face visits undertaken by a consistent health visitor to ensure any mental health problems they might be experiencing are picked up on as early as possible so they can be signposted for more specialist support.’
Kirsty Harvey, a mum from York, said, ‘I was terrified when I first became pregnant. I learnt to manage my mental well-being as an adult, with the help of medication but when I found out I was pregnant my anxiety ramped up a gear.
‘It is crucial that you don’t have to have that awful scenario of having to explain your case again, each time you see a health visitor. It is really difficult to ask for help in the first instance but especially if you have to repeat that over and over again.’
Cheryll Adams, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, said, ‘This situation was inevitable when public health budgets were cut and commissioning of public health services was moved to local authorities.
‘We’re optimistic things will change, but it will take time to improve -it is a sad situation.’
Professor Viv Bennett, chief nurse at Public Health England, said, 'Health visitors are at the front line of leading the evidence-based interventions set out in the Government’s Healthy Child Programme, playing a vital role in supporting parents and giving children the best start in life.
'The five child health and development reviews are an important part of the Healthy Child Programme offer and PHE will continue to work nationally and locally to support uptake and improve outcomes, so that parents and children benefit from this vital support.'