There is a growing body of research to support the importance of a child’s development from conception to the age of 2 (the first 1,001 days). But what does this mean for those running groups for these young children?

The first 1,001 days from when a baby starts to grow inside its mother until it hits its second birthday has become a hot topic that has been backed up by substantial research and data. This is a period of rapid growth, during which babies’ brains are shaped by their experiences and interactions with parents and caregivers. This lays the foundation for the rest of their lives.

This stage has caught the attention of parliamentary groups, who are working to raise awareness of this life stage and the important role early relationships play in a child’s development. Hopefully, this research will help to shape the way society and government treat babies, toddlers and their parents. Two infographics were recently produced, drawing on information provided by more than 100 experts in the field. They bring together the latest data in a common language we can all engage with. One is called Baby Brain Facts and the other is The Case for Action, which has the headline: “Investing in the emotional wellbeing of our babies is a wonderful way to invest in the future.”

“Hooray!” say the church-based baby and toddler group leaders and teams that have been demonstrating their passion for this age range for countless years by offering a safe and welcoming space for parents and carers to bring their bumps, babies and toddlers. Baby and toddler groups are often the hidden treasure in our churches and our nation. They can sometimes fall under the radar of the powers that be, including church leaders and members. Yet it is in these groups that the nurturing, encouraging, stimulating and investing in these first 1,001 days is taking place on a weekly basis. Having led a toddler group called Daniel’s Den for more than 22 years, I would like to unpack this a little and apply statements from these reports to our baby and toddler groups.

Made for relationship

Babies can hear from 24 weeks into pregnancy, and from then on are hardwired for relationship. Having a baby can be one of the most exciting, scary, joyous and challenging times of our lives. It is a rollercoaster of emotions as hormones, tiredness and new responsibilities play their part. This tiny person is totally dependent on their parents or carers for their needs to be met. I recall someone telling me that my newborn baby had more faith in me than I had in God, as babies never doubt that we will feed them, clothe them, keep them warm and safe, yet we sometimes doubt God. The enormity of this is huge and can feel overwhelming.

Children thrive on having not only a secure relationship with at least one caregiver, but also on the experiences they have with others. In a baby and toddler group there is the opportunity to explore new sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. Seeing a myriad of new faces and other children can be daunting for some children and parents, but it also offers them the opportunity to develop new relationships, even if it is through wanting to play with the same toy at the same time!

Sensory play is a feature of many groups, and getting hands dirty in squidgy gloop or feeling rice running through fingers can lead to lots of important learning. Simple crafts undertaken with the parent can provide a wonderful bonding experience, with the end product being of secondary importance to the process. The smell of freshly made toast or a newborn baby can add to the rich environment.

Trying new fruit at snack time because you see someone else doing it can be a breakthrough moment. You can be intentional about snack time to offer these new experiences. And then there is the singing! Whether it’s ‘The wheels on the bus’ or ‘Great big God’, singing with your children is a rich experience all round. In our groups, many of the children sit on the adult’s lap and the sense of closeness can be just as beneficial as the song.

Supporting parents

The best way to support the baby is to support the parent. Parents and carers need relationships as well as babies, and an invitation to a local baby or toddler group can make all the difference. Whether it comes by word of mouth, a noticeboard outside the church or a leaflet passed on by the midwife, that invitation may be just what is needed. A welcoming smile and a cup of tea made by someone else and drunk while someone holds your baby might be the only interaction a parent has with another adult all day or even all week.

Many of the parents I work with have no family around to offer support or help. Their partners are at work all day and they no longer have the social network they had while they were working. Loneliness and isolation can lead to depression, and it is estimated that one in three mums suffers with some form of postnatal depression in those first weeks and months. Having volunteers whose only role is to chat to parents or carers can make a world of difference, especially if they keep an eye out for those who are sitting alone. Connecting people with others in conversation is something I love to do, as folks sometimes find it challenging to make the first move.

A few kind words–“You’re doing a great job”–a hand on the shoulder or a “Me too” can make all the difference when parents just want to know that what they’re going through is normal. Some parenting courses talk about the ‘oxygen mask situation’ in parenting, as on an aeroplane you’re advised to put your own oxygen mask on before putting one on your child. There needs to be space in our baby and toddler groups for parents and carers to receive support so they can then offer the necessary support to their child.

We have a craft table, and while some children make the craft with their parents, the parent more often than not makes the craft. We don’t mind this at all, as many never had this opportunity during their own childhood. Modelling positive experiences is so important, and we constantly endeavour to use everyday items so they can recreate these activities at home with very little expense. We are here not only to nurture the babies and toddlers, but also the adults.

Approximately 8,300 babies aged under 1 in England currently live in households where domestic violence, alcohol or drug dependency and severe mental illness are all present. Stress factors such as domestic abuse and relationship conflict, mental illness, substance misuse, unresolved trauma and poverty can make it harder for parents to provide the care the baby needs. The more adversity a family experiences the harder it can be.

Addressing these complex needs can be challenging, yet there are opportunities to sow positive seeds in our baby and toddler groups. I recently visited a group that had more than 20 families who were experiencing some of these issues. Having a baby bank or food bank to help with material needs, a translator to offer advice to parents or carers for whom English isn’t their first language, arranging for parents to go to a refuge or to get help with substance abuse, referring people to talking therapies, liaising with the local authority regarding homelessness…the list goes on. Take time to consider your context and how you can best support the parents in your group.

Laying the foundation for good mental health

Feeling safe and secure is vital for children, and a baby or toddler group is a great bridge-builder. The child knows its significant carer is on hand if needed, yet there is freedom to explore. Some parents complain that their child is ‘clingy’ and are then amazed when he or she goes off and starts playing independently. Having a relaxed environment is so important, and parents often comment that they value this time to sit back a little and watch. Creating a physically safe environment is important, and this may mean the church has to invest time and money replacing old, grubby, chipped furniture and equipment with child-sized tables and chairs. Perhaps it could even stretch to a fresh coffee maker!

I belong to 1277 – Make Them Count, a national network of church-based toddler groups. Being part of its Facebook group, I regularly hear stories relating to all these points. The name stands for the 1,277 days from birth until a child goes to nursery. Whether it is 1,277 or 1,001, these first days are vital, and each and every one of them makes a difference. Through your baby or toddler group you can truly invest in the future of your community.

JOANNA GORDON is the founder and director of Daniel’s Den, a parent and toddler charity. She is part of 1277 – Make Them Count, a the national network for church-based toddler groups. She is also a member of the Strong Start 4 Children National Commission and the APPG’s 1,001 Critical Days.