Contrary to what you might read in the comments of a Daily Mail article, the answer to that question is not “a job”, “a kick up the arse” or “forcible sterilization”, charming as those suggestions may be.
Attitudes are slowly changing, but society still has a major attitude problem towards young parents. They’re written off as “scroungers”, “chavs” and “sluts” with no drive or ambition. Whether they’re 13, 16 or 19 (the cut-off age for being a no-good, promiscuous scrounger is still very much up for debate), young parents are seen as no-hopers and drains on the taxpayer’s purse.
It’s not just employability where we’re failing young parents. They’re less likely to breastfeed, more likely to have daughters who become young parents themselves, even more likely to lose a baby to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The elephant in the room is that it doesn’t have to be that way – and I’m not talking about preventing pregnancy at a young age. Young parents have specific needs, and the more we strive to meet those needs, the better their prospects will become.
So, what do young parents need?
- Focused antenatal support. One of the topics covered in antenatal classes is safe sleep for babies. Young parents are less likely to attend antenatal classes, and their babies are four times more likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It’s a terrifying statistic. The current system for antenatal classes doesn’t work for younger parents. Under 16s may be invited to a targeted “teenage mum support group”, but babies born to parents aged 17-20 fall into that high risk category too.
- Better breastfeeding support. Young parents are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, and less likely to continue. Much of our attitude towards breastfeeding is determined by the attitudes around us; if all we see is bottle-feeding, we’re likely to bottle-feed too. Creating a culture of acceptance towards breastfeeding is one important aspect, but it’s not the whole story. I’ll be writing a more detailed post about breastfeeding support for young parents soon.
- Support to return to education. I’ve spoken at length about how lucky I was to be at a university that supported me throughout my pregnancy and parenthood. I’ve also posted about what universities can do to become more parent-friendly. If young parents feel supported to continue with their education, it will pay dividends in the opportunities, training and qualifications they’ll achieve, giving them a better chance of finding sustainable careers.
- More awareness of perinatal mental health. Young parents often encounter antenatal and postnatal depression, but the current system of perinatal mental health is unfit for purpose. A higher budget, services in rural areas, de-stimgatizing postnatal depression and targeted mental health services are all vital for ensuring better postnatal mental health outcomes for young parents.
- Support in returning to, or starting, work. Young mums are stigmatized and stereotyped, resulting in unfair treatment when they try to return to work after maternity leave, or seek a flexible working arrangement. Laura from Max and Mummy Blog shared her story of discrimination for the fantastic #PowerToTheBump campaign; read it here.
It’s easy to criticise young parents, shifting the responsibility and onus away from anyone else to improve the situation. Young parenthood shouldn’t be an obstacle to success, and rather than burying our heads in the sand and relying on everyone else to ostracise young parents, allowing the cycle to continue, it’s time to start taking action. Improve services, raise awareness, signpost avenues of support – the benefits will speak for themselves.
Keep an eye on the blog; I’ll be bringing out more posts in the near future about how each of these points can be achieved, and just why it’s so important.