For many new mums and dads-to-be, the prospect of parenthood is a daunting one, which is why two million parents turned to the National Childbirth Trust for support and advice last year. 100,000 attended classes, hoping to gain an insight into the life-changing experience they were about to undergo, whilst also making new friends along the way.
It’s now 60 years since the NCT began, with a small advert in the personal column of The Times.
It was the brainchild of Prunella Briance, who came up with the idea after enduring “a horribly mismanaged birth and the loss of my precious baby girl.” She wanted to ensure that in future women felt better prepared for birth and parenthood. Prunella was inspired by obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read whose book ‘Childbirth Without Fear’ broke new ground in the 1950’s and is still regarded as one of the most influential birthing books of all time. Dick-Read was an advocate of natural birth and firmly believed that by educating women about the anatomy of pregnancy and birth, the pain of labour and how to manage it, he could put the mother back at the heart of childbirth.
That philosophy is still very much alive today, thanks, in part, to the work of the NCT in promoting it. The charity’s aim is to provide impartial and practical advice about pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood, so that mums and dads feel “empowered to make their own choices.” It also exists to “push forward developments in maternity services across the UK and beyond.” Indeed, their senior policy adviser, Elizabeth Duff, recently contributed to the National Maternity Review – an independent review of NHS Maternity Services in England. One of the panel’s main conclusions was that it should no longer be assumed that a woman would give birth in hospital. Whilst, for many this sounds like a step back in time to an era when home births and community midwives were the norm, for Elizabeth this is very unlikely to happen. “Mothers are now, on average, much older which increases risk and there are those with ongoing health conditions who will always be advised to give birth in hospital,” she says, adding “but I really hope that over time all the women who want community-based care will be able to achieve it and that the NHS will have the midwife capacity to support that.”
The review also recommended a renewed focus on continuity of care, with one midwife or a team of midwives supporting mothers throughout pregnancy and beyond. Elizabeth is a big advocate of this having seen the “huge benefits” it brought her own daughter who was “delighted with the NHS care she recently received, having antenatal appointments at home and overall a very positive birthing experience.” For Elizabeth, “being cared for by people she got to know made a massive difference.”
Mental health was another issue the review focused on and one which the NCT has made a priority over the last five years. “It’s not just about postnatal depression, many parents, including fathers, suffer increased anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and a whole variety of problems which interfere with bonding,” explains Elizabeth “and yet NCT research shows that very few hospital trusts have a strategy for mental health care in the weeks before and after the birth.” In 2015, the charity set about raising awareness and improving services through its #BeyondBabyBlues campaign. Since then, the government has pledged an additional £290 million to help new and expectant mothers. The NCT has also been given a Department of Health grant to trains volunteers to provide one-to-one support for new mums and dads.
It’s clear to see that the NCT, through its campaigns, has had a big impact on social change during the past sixty years, from giving fathers a place at the birth to making breastfeeding in public places acceptable. For Elizabeth, its success is down to one thing – staying true to Prunella Briance’s original philosophy and “encouraging women to own their own births, rather than hand them over to a professional and doing this by empowering them with the information they need to make their own decisions.” She hopes the charity will continue to push forward developments in maternity care for many years to come acknowledging “the spectrum of birth experiences will continue to widen from the women who ask for no intervention to those who will have a hi-tech pregnancy from conception through to birth.” But above all she hopes the charity will continue to enable new parents to forge friendships that will, like some of hers, last for generations to come.
Author: Rhiane Kirkby