Listening to women, working for change.

Is it just building sandcastles too close to the waves?

I don’t think so.

Roz Webb, NCT Practitioner
Birth & Beyond practitioner and Breastfeeding Counsellor

I love being an NCT facilitator. For much of the time it feels hugely rewarding, watching a group of people expand their skills, knowledge and friendship group over a 5-week period, and then beyond once their babies are born. As an ex-secondary teacher I would describe it as like teaching your best, keenest A-level class all the time! Or as a Breastfeeding Counsellor, sitting with a new mother and watching her relax and begin to smile is truly lovely.

So what’s the hard bit? It is hearing the tougher birth stories, the stories of dashed hopes, of disappointment and pain. Many parents say they did at least understand what happened, even if it was way off their plans, which is a relief to me as we would have talked a lot about decision-making, asking questions, being actively involved whatever happens. Like all NCT facilitators, I try to walk the line between presenting straightforward birth in a positive way and valuing and being glad of any necessary medical intervention. It is a hard discipline not to take the horror stories personally, but I work hard at this. I couldn’t carry on otherwise.

What I can do, though, is work closely with the maternity units locally, sharing the parents’ stories and looking at the bigger picture. I attend North Central London (NCL) Maternity Voices Partnership (MVP) which brings together all the local units. NCL is a Better Birth Early Adopter and it is heartening to see so many people devoted to making positive shifts in maternity care. Every time I hear a story of a less-than-kind health professional I just have to think of all the utterly amazing ones I meet with regularly and it puts everything into perspective. I also love having a close link to HOMs and Senior Midwives so I know the local units well and can ask questions when I need to. I think it is also hugely important for NCT facilitators to have a strong empathy for midwives, to really grasp the circumstances in which they work and the challenges they face. There has to be compassion on all sides.

I could sit around being angry. Angry that too many mothers don’t get the birth they hoped for. Angry that the NHS is so chronically underfunded. Angry that midwives at all levels are expected to give and give and give, without being held up financially or emotionally, trapped by the system. Instead, I try to do something constructive…

Scene at the beach

A few years ago, inspired by an NCT Voices event at Acton, I set up Whittington Maternity Voices Partnership (as they are now called) and I haven’t looked back. National and London based MVP events are always extraordinary – full of super-powered women, many of whom are involved with NCT as well. We recently had one at the Oval which was on a whole other level as NHS England was involved too – real coffee, a fancy lunch and a free pen and pad of paper! The national MVP Facebook page is my favourite – incredibly empowering and supportive.

MVPs can really make a difference to local services and people. One mother who came recently had experienced a challenging birth, but had towed the line of ‘well at least I had a healthy baby’ that women so often hold onto to get through. Sometimes it is the ‘right’ response for them, but other times it masks a lot of pain. In this case, coming to the MVP opened the floodgates for her. She was held by a room full of caring women and the next week attended the birth reflections clinic. She hadn’t realised how much sadness she was holding in.

Whilst every MVP is run differently, not least in terms of funding (or lack of it), there is a strong national movement to get them properly valued and recognised. MVPs are a real example of co-production and every NCT facilitator, volunteer and parent can make an incredibly important contribution to Better Births by engaging with their local MVP. So if you’re not already, please do get involved!

There are times when running an MVP and actually seeing any change feels like a Sisyphean task, of building sandcastles too close to the waves. But I am always buoyed up by the responses of the parents who come to our workshops. They feel empowered. They feel heard. They feel healed.

Gearing up for Annual Returns

Carolyn Neal, BFC Co-ordinator
Carolyn Neal, BFC    Co-ordinator

It’s that time of year again when NCT practitioners – myself included – are all asked to complete their Annual Return. It’s a simple questionnaire each practitioner completes every spring that helps provide information to NCT about their practice. This, coupled with specific feedback shared by parents attending courses, helps NCT ensure they offer the right support to practitioners as well as continue to offer high quality services to parents in the first 1,000 days.

I am NCT’s Breastfeeding Counsellor Co-ordinator. The first one in fact since NCT created the role in 2013. I qualified as a Breastfeeding Counsellor (BFC) back in 2005 after having three children. I then went on to develop my NCT career as a Supervisor and a BFC Assessor.

I love to visit mums and new babies and help them with breastfeeding and I also facilitate a couple of breastfeeding sessions a month in my local areas of Selby, York and Leeds. I have five BFCs that I support directly through supervision and I do about 10 assessments a year, travelling round the country to observe and support other BFCs.

Each of my NCT roles are very rewarding – it is a privilege to support so many wonderful women who give up so much of their time and energy voluntarily to support mothers and babies.

I completed my return recently as a practitioner. I found the online questionnaire quick and easy to do – the process has been simplified for practitioners a lot over the past couple of years as NCT now makes use of data already collected so practitioners don’t have to provide this themselves. As a Co-ordinator, Annual Returns time is always a challenge – we have many hundreds of practitioners and we need to make decisions about their Licences to Practice in time for renewal in August. And of course, as an individual practitioner this time can feel a bit daunting. But there’s lots of support available to get you through.

Here are some tips to help you make the process of Annual Returns go more smoothly:

  • Now is a good time for you to check you have met all the requirements
  • Get in touch with your specialist Co-ordinator early if you think there will be a problem
  • You may have time to get in an observation of another practitioner, or a last supervision session or a holistic CPD application
  • Don’t forget the 3-yearly requirements – an observation, a national event and an assessment
  • Plan ahead for your CPD – our Regional Practitioner Forums have proved very popular and some study days get booked up early so check the Study Days System early in the year
  • Make sure you complete your Annual Return by midnight on 30 April

And finally, good luck to all practitioners with your Annual Returns. Remember, we’re here to help so do get in touch!


A little less conversation, a little more action?

Back in the heady days when Dad-dancing was still happily for other people (my Dad, for example), popular-beat-combo JXL, you may remember, remastered the old Presley classic, A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action. Mingling floor-filling big beats with deeper tones from Memphis, ‘JXL vs Elvis’ pepped-up the summer of 2002. And though clearly not a song written about early parenting, I’ve found myself wondering this week whether its central injunction is really right? And if it’s not, what that’s got to do with NCT?

We’re in the middle of hundreds of conversations ourselves just now with parents, practitioners and volunteers about the future of ourNCTservices – itself a central chapter in #ourNCTstory. How, in the decade ahead, do we make sure that what we deliver for and with parents stays relevant, accessible and impactful?

We are still very much at the investigation stage and will be sharing emerging findings in the now-annual summer roadshows. In the meantime, I’ve personally really enjoyed and taken much from four events I’ve been part of in Belfast, Birmingham, London and Manchester, including some specific conversations with practitioners on how we can encourage more parents to take up our Early Days courses. Early Days evaluates consistently well. Selling it is persistently hard.

A number of themes have surfaced as we explore with parents and practitioners why this is and I won’t attempt to summarise here. Yet one that keeps coming up is that parents will spend on their babies sooner than themselves. I get this. We all do. But it’s a problem, right? Because we also know how hard these early days are. How bewildering, isolating, daunting, doubtful. And we know from our insight work how parents so often feel they are uniquely failing. This in itself points to the importance of making space to talk. So does wider evidence.

Catching up on reading as trains wind slowly through the snow and its remnants, the ever-green International Journal of Birth and Parent Education (a brilliant publication edited by our own Mary Nolan and Shona Gore) draws me to Sutton Trust research on parenting and attachment and a meta-analysis exploring the link between parenting style and cognitive and emotional development. The links are well-known of course. Though one specific finding particularly struck home – that children with more stimulating home environments but less secure attachment have lower language competence aged two than those in less educationally stimulating home environments with more secure attachments. In other words, in nurturing vs. activity, nurturing wins.

We know this already of course. Not least because facilitation, conversation, connectedness are our thing. And spending a lot of time with practitioners in the past ten days reminds me of this powerfully. Of course baby activities, done well, can be very much about developing a nurturing relationship – eye contact, responsiveness, touch, singing, knowing how to play. And in the sidelines, quiet conversations take place which are about mum. They also play into the ‘low pressure to socialise’ theme. So the route to developing nurturing environments might be via activities which are (seemingly) focused on baby.

All further evidence that ‘spending on my baby, or spending on me’ shouldn’t be a zero-sum. Finding space to talk and be, matters more than filling early days with stuff. A little more conversation, a little less action. It’s best sung loud.