The Child

Recognising and Responding to Vulnerability in Under 1s

March 2, 2023

Rachel Buckler wants you to know how powerful you are in saving children's lives.

Rachel Buckler wants you to know how powerful you are in saving children's lives.
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As Early Years practitioners, you know that babies are extremely fragile. In this article Rachel Buckler discusses how Early Years practitioners can save the lives of vulnerable children under 1, just by being observant.

I don’t want to put a damper on your festive cheer – we all need the Christmas magic more than ever this year. The festive season is supposed to be a happy time; a time to be with the people you love.

But while you’re enjoying your sticky toffee pudding, let’s take a moment to think about how even the smallest actions can make a difference to those who might not be enjoying the festive cheer. As an Early Years practitioner, you have the power to save children’s lives, just by being observant.

But why bring this up now? Because amid the thoughts of holiday happiness, vulnerable children often suffer even more than they usually would. The festive period is always a significant trigger for increased alcohol consumption, domestic abuse and violence, as well as mental health difficulties and an increase in financial stressors. This takes a massive toll on our little ones. When adults and parents are struggling, vulnerable babies and children under the age of one need our help.

This piece will hopefully give you, as practitioners, the tools to identify and help prevent abuse of vulnerable children.

You have more superpowers than you realise.

The dark side of lockdown

It’s no secret that the nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns have made this year difficult. But vulnerable babies and children have been affected particularly badly. Ofsted state that more babies than usual are experiencing intentional harm since the first national lockdown, and, heartbreakingly, they noted a ‘high number of unexpected infant deaths’.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman reported in November that there was an ‘alarming’ amount of babies killed or harmed during the first lockdown – a 20% increase in comparison to the previous year. Ms Spielman states the ‘toxic mix of isolation, poverty and mental illness’ as the cause for a further spike in the second lockdown. This ‘Covid pressure cooker’ is adding ‘extra pressures upon families who were already struggling’.

But why am I so intent on focusing on such a gloomy story? Because a lot of these deaths were preventable.

Important safeguarding measures to protect under 1s are often given through face-to-face interactions with healthcare providers and healthcare professionals, but these were significantly restricted due to lockdowns. Had this not been the case, these deaths may never have occurred.

Safeguarding and vulnerability

As Early Years practitioners, you know that babies are extremely fragile.

New-born and older babies are prone to infection – they’re still building immunity and resilience as they become exposed to health threats. A safe environment where they can develop and thrive, both physically and emotionally, is therefore absolutely essential.

But it’s not just that they’re exposed to health threats – in terms of safeguarding and child protection, under 1s are one of the most vulnerable groups. It is widely documented that risks to babies often occur right in the family home. Factors such as domestic abuse, parental ill health and parental alcohol or drug abuse significantly increases probability of harm or abuse.

Serious case reviews, published as a result of a child tragically dying or being harmed where abuse or neglect is suspected, frequently capture this familiar theme. With everyone being cooped up for a lot of the year, many of us will not be surprised to hear that an increased number of children under the age of one have been negatively affected by lockdowns.

This may not always be the fault of direct abuse, however. For some parents, safe environments are compromised for a variety of reasons. We always have to be mindful that parents’ knowledge of what a safe and healthy environment is may be limited or completely non-existent. Some may be reliant on additional help from family members – an essential lifeline that has been cut due to COVID restrictions.

Babies need to be safe and secure, and their relationships with parents and other significant adults in their lives need to be nurturing and positive. It’s absolutely vital that parents understand the importance of safeguarding and the risks involved if measures aren’t taken to protect under 1s.

When basic needs aren’t met

It isn’t just the home environment that we need to be mindful of. Babies have basic needs, and when those needs aren’t met it starts to get dangerous. It’s extremely important that we recognise these needs and why a lack of them has severe consequences.

Basic necessities such as food, water, warmth and a place to rest and sleep may seem obvious, but not every home will provide these. Maslow’s hierarchy of need shows us that when the first level of ‘needs’ isn’t met, it’s very difficult for the baby to progress.

If we consider the neurological development of babies alone, 70% of a baby’s brain is already developed by the age of one year. This emphasises the importance of healthy neural connections, development and growth in babies’ brains, as their basic needs must be met in order to form these connections.

The effects of neglect and trauma upon young children is indisputably both dangerous and harmful to their development, both in the short and the long run. This trauma can follow the child well throughout their childhood and into their adult life.

It’s extremely important to mention that this isn’t a small number of babies. In the 2018 publication A Crying Shame the Children’s Commissioner reported the extent of vulnerable babies in England. It noted 19,640 babies known to social care and ‘identified by local authorities as being in need’. That’s a shockingly high number.

But that isn’t even the real number. The statistics didn’t include the babies who were not identified as being in need or at risk. These children remain invisible to local authorities, as they just haven’t been identified yet.

Why does this often go unnoticed?

When talking about invisible children, we have to remember that one of the main vulnerabilities for babies is that they aren’t seen.

Babies don’t go to school, they don’t always access childcare, and health services have minimal engagement with them unless a concern or need is identified or addressed. This has always been the case. Fast forward to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic saw fewer notifications to local authorities, and fewer social services referrals from adults working with children in schools, nurseries or health services.

Fewer referrals this year are a clear indicator of how many children’s needs have simply gone by unnoticed. This is even more devastating for babies and children under one, as they can’t even communicate what’s happening to them or around them to ask for help.

The need to isolate from other family members has put a strain on parents themselves, as they might not have the support or help they really need in order to care for their children.

How Early Years practitioners can identify and respond to vulnerability

It’s simply inspirational to see the help and support provided by the Early Years sector who have consistently reached out to children and families over the past months amid the second lockdown and regional tier restrictions.

Below are some examples of actions you can take, inspired by the dedication of the Early Years workforce. I hope they inspire you to look at your own practice and think about where you can add little improvements to make big waves.

  • Build upon effective professional relationships with parents to offer expert advice and support on all things child development.
  • Signpost to services or organisations that offer advice on health issues or safe practices such as safe sleep messages for babies in the home.
  • Reassure parents and encourage them to take babies for regular health checks and appointments, or seek medical attention if needed.
  • Consider the changing circumstances for families and take into account stress factors and ongoing difficulties associated with COVID-19.
  • Advocate on behalf of families who need help and support.
  • Continue to place the most vulnerable babies on their ‘concern radar’ focusing on their wellbeing or safety, including siblings of children who might not attend the setting but are family members.
  • Follow up absences to establish that a child is safe and well (including families who may be isolating due to COVID-19).
  • Work closely with partner agencies including social care to understand vulnerability and what this means for individual families and babies.

During this festive period and particularly when Early Years settings will be closed over the Christmas holidays, let’s think ahead and be mindful of making sure that our parents have everything they need to keep their babies safe and well.

The big ideas

Learn more

Giving parents resources to help and educate can save a life. Below are a few important messages for parents of babies and children under the age one that you can share:

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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