Holyrood baby: Kirsty’s mum is centre stage

Written by Mary Renfrew, professor of mother and infant health, University of Dundee on 4 June 2016 in Comment

Mother and infant health expert Mary Renfrew says generations of habits need to be broken to help babies like Kirsty

Kirsty’s life chances – like all children – will be affected by the circumstances she is born into, for good or otherwise. Her future health and development is in the hands of her parents, other family and friends, and the community and wider society in which she lives. 

There is evidence that Kirsty’s first 1000 days will be hugely important in shaping her later life. But it isn’t just those early months and years that matter, it’s also what comes before it.
What happens to any child is the product of what happened first to her parents, especially her mother.

Kirsty’s mother Caley’s life opportunities, chances and decisions affect both the baby and herself. Caley is centre stage in Kirsty’s life.


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There’s all sorts of factors in pregnancy that affect the child’s life chances, whether the negative impact of stress, poverty or alcohol, or the positive effect of healthy food and nutrition. Who has talked Caley through her decisions? Who has been caring for Caley herself, so she feels safe and supported and with the right information about birth and beyond? Did she go for midwife care? Does she know about folic acid? Who will help and support her with breastfeeding, and weaning? Does she know about the importance of loving, holding, talking, singing, and reading to her child through her early weeks, months and years?  

Fathers, too, are so important. In Scotland there can sometimes be a slightly macho thing, but actually, Scottish men are often very engaged with their children. Even if he’s no longer with Caley, Kirsty’s father is around, but how that relationship develops into the long term will make a big impact in Kirsty’s life. Spending time with Kirsty, holding and loving and playing and building her self-confidence as she grows is such an important gift a father can give a child.

By the time she is born, Kirsty’s life chances have been quite radically affected already, for good or otherwise. Just as Caley’s own life chances have in turn been affected from the start by her own mother’s pregnancy and childhood.

In Scotland we have generations of habits, and generations of poverty, we have to break. Bottle feeding. Too much sugar, alcohol. Smoking. For some women, not enough support for their own mental health, nutrition, or difficult social circumstances. But we also have the opportunity to change that for children like Kirsty, and in turn, for their children. 

We can break through the social barriers with good policy and good support for women and families. Without removing those societal barriers, it won’t be easy for Caley to make all the healthy decisions she might want.

If she’s going to breastfeed, for example, like most women she’s likely to need support and help, and she needs to feel comfortable about breastfeeding when she’s out and about. 

The Scottish Government’s maternity and neonatal review will report in the autumn I think, and that will be looking at how to keep mothers and fathers centre stage along with their babies, so all parents are able and supported to love, care for and nurture their babies.

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