Mums 'should talk to babies in the womb'

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The Independent Online
Child-Care specialists at a London hospital are planning to launch a pioneering initiative to help parents relate to their children even before they are born.

The project, which has already run successfully in Europe, involves health-care workers visiting pilot groups of parents-to-be from as early as the 12th week of pregnancy. They would concentrate on the emotional well-being of parents and infants, including encouraging mothers to try techniques like talking to their babies in the womb.

Professor Hilton Davis of Guy's Hospital, one of the British team spearheading the project, explains: "One of the problems is that parents sometimes think of their babies as slightly frightening blobs, without realising they're highly responsive human beings, hyper-sensitive to sound and especially voice. We want to help parents recognise and react to their baby's responses right from the start."

The approach underlines the message that the very early relationship between parents and children is crucial to a child's future development - one of the central planks in the manifesto issued last week by Frances Lawrence, whose headteacher husband was murdered by a 15-year-old outside his school gates.

"One major problem in all this is that being a parent is a non-job at the moment," says Professor Davis. "Our society and institutions don't value growing children or the task of looking after them. Children are seen as an interlude, an irritation.

"What I want to do is normalise the idea of learning about being a parent right from the start. Just as parenthood should be a subject in our schools, preparation for bringing up children effectively should be a standard part of everybody's ante-natal care."

This programme would also extend beyond the practical post-natal preoccupations of nappy-changing and sterilising bottles. The team wants to encourage prospective parents to think about what they are expecting from their relationship with their new baby, how it will affect their partner, and what the baby is feeling itself. But Professor Davis is determined their approach will be non-prescriptive: "The answers will come from the parents, not the professionals."

The scheme was originally launched in Greece by Professor John Tsiantis. "The response has been amazing, very encouraging," he says, "with mothers telling us they are more able to cope with everyday problems. Our clinical results ... suggest very measurable effects in terms of maternal well- being and a reduction in depression and anxiety - all factors that dictate how well a baby and parent bond in the first months, and how well the child develops emotionally after that."

Halina Kierkuc is the producer of Carlton TV's 'Parenting Weeks'. 'Teenagers: a survival guide for parents' is broadcast in the London area on Tueday at 7.30pm.

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