THE relationship between parent and child is an area of study that led a group of psychotherapists to set up the Oxford Parent Infant Project (OXPIP) 15 years ago.
It now helps more than 400 parents a year – mostly mums – who are struggling to bond with their child by using one-to-one therapy and feedback from play sessions between parent and child.
One mum, Lucy (not her real name) told the Oxford Mail she burst into tears when an NHS worker asked if she was struggling to bond with her newborn and helped put her in touch with the Kidlington-based group.
OXPIP executive director Adrian Sell said: “Being a parent isn’t easy. It is a time when there is a lot of stress and demands on people’s time.”
He said that even with the best support structures, it can still be “a very challenging period of time. We help people see what they are doing right and doing more of that to build on their confidence”.
He added: “One of the difficulties is that parents feel criticised already by the media. There is seemingly an endless list of things they should be doing.
“It makes you feel like you are failing as a parent and that makes it harder to be a good parent.”
Such bonding is vital as it has a positive impact on the mental health of the mother and the quality of the relationship.
He said: “There are a lot of studies that show the long-term benefit for the mother and baby.
“The best opportunity to have a positive influence is very early on in the child’s life.”
Given the increasing understanding about the importance of bonding, the charity has enjoyed strong financial support, including £100,000 from the Department for Education towards its annual £400,000 turnover.
And about three in four people they work with see an improvement of the quality of the parent-infant relationship while two in three see an improvement in the quality of their mental health.
Psychotherapist Jake Spencer shares the post of clinical director with Dr Harriet Calvert at the charity, which employs six full-time therapists.
Just by talking about and recognising their issues by “processing an emotional state” can be a massive help, she advised.
She said: “If someone is traumatised by the birthday, for example, of their child because their baby nearly died they can later think about the huge fear and terror they had at that time.
“It can make it very difficult to bond with that baby so you are still frightened you are going to lose it.
“Somebody might not be able to put it into words, but might know something is not quite right.
“Just being able to talk about it, putting it into words can be really helpful.”
She said: “Sometimes, if people have had difficult early life experiences themselves, that might stir up some difficult feelings about their own childhood.
“There are things we want to do differently to our own parents and, in moments of stress, you can find yourselves repeating these things.”
Parental behaviour – positive or negative – has a major impact on the child’s later life, she said.
A key therapy is “watch, wait and wonder” where parents are encouraged to play with the baby, but follow its lead.
Mrs Spencer said: “Rather than rushing in and doing things and showing the baby how the toy works, it is sitting back and watching.
“It is about giving the baby its own sense of curiosity.”
She said of OXPIP: “It is essential and there are so many parents out there who wish they could have some support because having a baby is a huge transition in peoples lives.
“It is really important we support parents to be the best parents they can be.”
Parents’ positive feedback
NORMA Thompson, head of Oxford’s Florence Park Children’s Centre, said OXPIP is of great benefit to its work in offering play for children and support for their carers.
She said: “Being a new parent is not always easy and sometimes parents need additional confidential support to help to bond with their child from an early age from specialists like those from Oxpip.
“The support that is available includes baby massage and
one-to-one counselling and we often get extremely positive feedback from parents.
“I think many people feel comfortable using the service as it is in the children’s centre, which is a location which they are already familiar with.
“We can see that the support that is offered has enabled many parents to build on their relationships with their children and to gain confidence in understanding and responding to their babies’ needs.
“This is obviously fantastic and I know Oxpip has assisted many parents during the five years they have been working from Florence Park Children’s Centre.”
Filming for the future generation
AS a former social worker and counsellor at a Wantage GP practice, Joanna Tucker knew all too well the importance of the right parenting in an infant’s early years which led her to volunteer for OXPIP.
Joanna Tucker used footage to help parents see behaviour patterns
She runs a form of therapy where the parent is filmed interacting with their child and then shown the footage to learn about what they are doing right and tips for the future.
The Headington resident’s time as a social worker brought her into contact with families deep in crisis, sometimes in court, and long past the point of useful intervention.
The 67-year-old said: “I wanted to help parents and babies to a better start so we avoid the need to be in court.
“The earlier we can see them, it takes much less time for things to change for the better.”
Mothers who have had difficult births and struggle to bond because of the fear of losing their child are among the issues she helps parents work through.
She said of the footage: “You will spot a moment of eye contact, a moment when the parent follows the baby’s initiative, the baby’s lead, that is what you are particularly looking for.
“Parents can try so hard they tend to be intrusive with a baby, they might rattle something in front of their baby’s face or a particular form of play may go a certain way they think it should.”
‘I had to come to terms with me, my self hate'
ONE Oxford mum-of-two said she was agonised by her failure to bond with her newborn daughter until she attended weekly two-hour therapy sessions for four months with OXPIP in 2008.
Lucy (not her real name), 38, said: “When I looked at her it was unlike my eldest child when I knew he was mine, he felt and smelled like he was mine. When I looked at my daughter, she was beautiful and kind of exotic, but she didn’t look like me or anybody in my family and didn’t feel like she was mine.
“I was there at the birth, nobody swapped her, I would have done anything to protect her. The instincts were strong, but I just didn’t recognise who she was.”
She said of the health visitor: “She asked ‘how are you feeling in yourself? Do you feel like you are bonding well with her?’ and I just burst into tears and said ‘no, I don’t know who she is, I can’t feel who she is and I feel so guilty about it. I feel like I am not doing a good job and don’t know how to make it better’.”
The mum – who suffered post-natal depression – “nearly bit her arm off” when told about OXPIP and said of the therapy: “We talked an awful lot about my own upbringing, my own childhood and even my own parents’ upbringing and childhood’.
“We found the problem I had wasn’t I couldn’t bond with my daughter, it was I couldn’t bond with myself. I had so much stuff from my own past, so much self hate that when I looked at her that was the nearest thing to me.
“A lot of what we did was coming to terms with it, who I am, where I fitted in in my own family and seeing it from a different perspective.”
She said of her daughter, now six: “She is just fabulous, she is amazing.”
Nurse reaps benefit of sharing knowledge
ALI Barrett, pictured, is among the NHS workers who have been trained by OXPIP as part of its work to share its knowledge of how to best support parents.
The community nursery nurse at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust is part of a team that visits new parents around the north of the city, including Wolvercote, Kidlington and Summertown.
She also refers them to the charity and said: “Generally, the health visiting team will support the parents to the best of our capabilities, but we are very lucky to have OXPIP to refer the families to.”
The charity’s more intensive therapy builds on their work, she said.
She added: “I have attended many OXPIP training courses. It has helped me assist parents and infants.”
She believes it has helped her to better spot the subtle signs of discord, from sleep to feeding issues.
The nurse said: “It has enhanced my skills and has deepened by knowledge and understanding.
“It has made me look more closely at mothers, parents and their infant. It can be very hard. It is not always obvious.”
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