Backbench Business — [1st Allotted Day]
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on what has turned out to be a fantastically refreshing debate, which has been part debate and part group therapy.
I want to add my own personal contribution. Like my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston, I suffered from post-natal depression. It is unbelievable how awful you feel when you are sitting with your tiny baby in your arms and your baby cries and so do you. You cannot even make yourself a cup of tea. You just feel so utterly useless. Looking back on that time, I genuinely agree with my hon. Friend that going through that experience makes you a better person. It also makes you determined to do something for other people in that situation.
Post-natal depression is a key issue for women as individuals. Like many others, I got over it with the help of a good family and husband, and by going back to work. Many people do not get over it. Although the consequences are profound for those women, the consequences for their babies are often even more profound.
I want to talk briefly about the experience of a baby. When babies are born, they are about two years premature. Their brains have barely developed. They have all of the neurones but none of the neural pathways are laid down. That happens only during the first two years of life. The peak period for the growth and development of a baby’s brain is between six and 18 months, and that growth is literally stimulated by a loving relationship with an adult carer—usually their mum, of course. If a baby’s mum has a lovely, smiling face and always picks them up, cheers them up, hugs them, feeds them and changes them whenever they cry, their brain becomes hard-wired to understand that the world is a good place. They will go on to be a person who can deal with life’s ups and downs, and who retains the idea that the world will be good to them.
It is like Harry Potter. He had loving parents until he was two, but then along came Lord Voldemort and murdered them, and he had an unspeakable experience until he was into his teens and escaped to Hogwarts. What kept him on the straight and narrow, and understanding right from wrong, was his secure foundation. I put it to the Minister that that is how to secure good emotional health for our society.
If babies do not have a secure bond—usually with mum, but it can be with another parent or with adoptive parents—their brain develops in such a way that they expect to have to fight or withdraw. Those babies are the people who go on to fail to cope with what life throws at them. They struggle to make friendships, and they are the people who are bullied or become victims, or indeed become bullies themselves at school. Babies at the acute
end, where there is real neglect and abuse, are the ones who go on to become drug addicts or violent criminals. In fact, research shows that 80% of long-term criminals have attachment problems stemming from babyhood.
A sad truth about our society is that research shows that 40% of children aged five are not securely attached. Of course, that does not mean that they all go on to become psychopaths or murderers, but it does mean that we are raising generations of babies and young children who do not have the emotional capacity to meet the ups and downs that life throws at them. They will have a much greater tendency than other people to mental illness. They will struggle to have all the things that we perhaps take for granted, such as a secure family and a decent job, and they will be less robust in their emotional make-up.
There is much that we could do to support people. We heard yesterday in the debate on early intervention about how much more could be done to support social workers and destigmatise going to children’s centres and seeking help. One very good example came from Mr Field, who has talked about it for a long time. Why do we not ensure that people go to a children’s centre to register their baby’s birth, and then to get their child benefit? That would instantly mean that most people would use children’s centres, so it would destigmatise them.
Children’s centres should not just be places where people go for antenatal and post-natal check-ups; people should be able to go there for psychotherapeutic support such as that offered by the Oxford Parent Infant Project, the charity of which I was chairman for nine years. It provides psychotherapeutic support for families who are struggling to bond with their babies. Social workers, health visitors and midwives love it because it is somewhere to which they can on-refer people. We hear a lot of talk about training for health visitors, but no talk about what they should do when they spot attachment problems and what help they should provide to families to turn the situation around. OXPIP has shown how incredibly easy it is to do so, because both mother and baby are extraordinarily receptive to being supported in such a way as to develop the attunement and empathy that they need for a good relationship with each other.
Mums who adore their babies do not allow partners to stub cigarettes out on them. They do not shake them to death or neglect and ignore them when they are crying. It is all about building an early relationship. It is greatly in the interests of our society for sound relationships to have been built by the age of two so that we do not constantly have to deal with the consequences of failed attachment later in life.