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The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 is “Loneliness”

But how does peer support reduce loneliness?

We started Mental Health Awareness Week by sharing some rather gorgeous photos of some rather gorgeous babies who attend our Spoons Sensory Play Sessions. We share these sort of photos a lot and we often talk about our groups and our amazing team who lead them. But why do we run these sessions, what are we aiming to achieve through them?

Obviously there are lots of benefits of sensory play, it encourages brain development and learning through exploration. Plus it is great fun. Same goes for our baby massage sessions. Which again has loads of benefits for babies and their parents. Better sleep (yay), positive interaction, digestive benefits the list goes on… But these reasons aren’t behind why we run our community groups. These reasons are a bonus!

Going way back to the beginning… Spoons started in 2015 with a very small (teeny actually) peer support offer in Royal Oldham Neonatal Unit Intensive Care Unit (NICU). We knew there was huge value in peer support at that point. Having had our own neonatal journey’s, we knew the value of #IveBeenThere.  But I don’t think we quite realised just how huge the impact of having, safe, structured lived experience peer support would be. Not just on the neonatal unit, but also in the community. When parents felt alone, isolated and overwhelmed.

Our very first community peer support group was delivered in Royton Children’s centre. Who had kindly agree for us to use their centre each month for free. We put a poster up on the NICU at Royal Oldham advertising the group, with promises of tea and toast to anyone who turned up. With no idea how it would go! Two of us (there was only two of us) went along to the Children’s Centre on the day. Armed with our thick white loaf and best butter, feeling pretty nervous! Only one person came, and that was a lovely nurse from the neonatal unit who wanted to show some support. We were gutted! But we wasn’t defeated, every single month we rocked up and each month we would get a few more parents turning up. They were catching up with friends they had met on the neonatal unit, or meeting new ones. It was just so special to watch! The best thing about it is they also want to get involved. They wanted to support other families through their lived experience and we all made it happen. Our peer support service is now thriving and supporting many families throughout Greater Manchester. We have the most wonderful volunteers and staff making this happen.

But what happened to our groups? How did we go from one monthly meet up in Oldham to several groups per week? How did we get to offering baby massage, sensory play, weaning information across Greater Manchester ? We watched our families our families and the impact that peer support was having on their emotional heath and wellbeing. We listened to their feedback. We asked them to help us create a wider community of neonatal families, to tell us what they would find helpful and supportive. They helped us shape our offer.

We think the Spoons offer is special, it is holistic and responsive to the need of our local neonatal communities. But what is so special about Spoons, isn’t just about how WE support families. It is about how we facilitate them to support each other. How with our families and NHS neonatal colleagues, we create communities and support families to create their own networks.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on mental health, not just families who experience neonatal care. But in every context. More and more people have experienced loneliness and isolation than ever before. We have had to try that bit harder to safely bring families together to support each other. In January 2021 a group of mums and babies came along to our baby massage sessions. Some of them had never laid eyes on each other before and all were feeling anxious about attending. Below they describe what meeting each other has meant to them. It is a beautiful example of friendship and how peer support via lived experience can have a huge impact. It is a perfect example of the power of peer support!

Chloe & Nella

“The first time going to baby massage I was late, stressed, overwhelmed and ready to call it quits before I even made it there. But I am so thankful I didn’t just turn around and go home. This group made me and Nella feel so welcome. I had tried other baby groups before and had always felt a little pushed to the side or made to feel strange for how small Nella was for her age, her developmental milestones but these ladies did nothing but build us up. I can honestly say because of this group of amazing mommas I grew in confidence and with their support and reassurance became an amazing mom to my baby girl (because let’s be honest babies don’t come with an instruction manual, especially our NICU babies)  We taught each other tips and tricks with their medicines/conditions and had catch up over coffees, and now I could not imagine being without this group . I thank Spoons for bringing us together and providing a safe space for us and I thank them for being my safety net and friends when I felt most alone.

Lisa & Hettie

“Hettie was born via emergency c section at 37 weeks, having a baby on NICU is something I hadn’t thought of. Having a baby born in lockdown and homeschooling my older child at home was a challenge in itself. Me and dad then couldn’t visit together as we CVID meant we couldn’t rely on family to help.. This is where we met Lauren as Hettie and Lucas were roomies. They have been monkeys together from the beginning. I remember after their feeds we’d both comment how much they would need topping  up via NG tube,both wanting them to drink from the bottle and longing to go home and be a ‘normal family. When home me and dad would often comment “wonder how Lucas is?” It was a lovely surprise to then bump into Lauren at baby massage. This class couldn’t have come at a better time as I didn’t realise how low and lonely I was feeling. I really struggled with Hettie’s reflux and milk allergy.  Talking to Janine and the girls about this was a massive weight lifted. I then looked forward to the weekly massage class and chats with the other mums. These girls are my go to mums, a day doesn’t go by where one of us isn’t asking for advice or simply just checking in. They have been a massive part of our journey especially as Hettie has  developed more allergies. I will be forever grateful for their support knowing they are only a text/call away.”

Lauren & Lucas

The thought of leaving the house for the first time without Lucas’ dad was petrifying for me given the trauma that we had gone through following his discharge from NICU which saw us with another lengthy admission to hospital only to be discharged with Lucas being NG tube fed.  I knew Janine as I had been having trauma therapy sessions through Spoons whilst Lucas was still in hospital trying to manage my feelings and understanding how to process what had happened so I was slightly relieved. On attending the first session Lucas’ room mate from NICU was there too and I felt instantly at ease and had the “this is where I’m meant to be” feeling. From there on week by week we all spoke more, opening up and sharing tips and tricks for medication, feeding, lack of sleep, constipation you name it! Having the sessions to go to during COVID were a huge help too. We hadn’t seen much of anyone until starting baby massage! We started going for coffees after sessions and I realise now looking back it was the most comfortable I felt when out with Lucas alone. To be around women who had gone through and were experiencing the same experiences as me was exactly what I needed. I had terrible anxiety about feeding Lucas outside of the house or not with his dad there following a choking episode made worse by his severe silent reflux. But the mums made me feel so at ease, I was finally able to bite the bullet with their support. I tried once to attend an “ordinary” sensory group with Lucas but on my first day someone persisted to ask in depth questions about Lucas’ birth and potential future pregnancies that I hadn’t even processed myself yet. It highlighted how different the spoons group environment was. There was an unspoken understanding of what to ask and when to ask it. Fast forward one year, we go to play centres, lunch dates, for walks and even had a mum’s night out at Christmas! These ladies are my go to for both advice and rants, we’re each other’s number one supporters. I couldn’t ever thank spoons enough for giving me this group of mamas to confine in and grow with! Oh and Lucas thanks spoons for his besties he loves playing with!

Yasmin & Jacob

The first time I went to baby massage I was quite nervous. Jacob was on home oxygen and we hadn’t ventured out of the house much. Transporting a baby and an oxygen tank felt scary, and I wasn’t sure if people would look at us or ask uncomfortable questions. But this group was amazing! There were no awkward glares and I was instantly made comfortable. Knowing that everyone in the room knew where we were coming from, and had also been through the NICU journey, made a scary experience feel really safe. We continued to meet up after class finished. Having a group where we have fun and share our ups, downs, tips and tricks has helped me so much. Being on this journey with a group of amazing mamas and incredible babies has been such an honour, and I love that we now get to celebrate our babies’ first birthdays together!

Carly & Lucia

When I first took Lucia to baby massage she was only 6/7 weeks old and hadn’t even reached her due date. It was the first baby class I had attended and  was one of my first outings out alone with her without her dad after he had returned to work, so I was unsure what to expect from the other parents. So far I’d had people telling me I shouldn’t be leaving the house with her being so small, but sitting in a house all day has never been for me, getting out was the easy part. As soon as I arrived at baby massage Janine made me feel so at ease and as each mum arrived with their baby they were all keen to say hello.As the weeks went on I found myself opening up to the group about feelings I had suppressed and didn’t even know I had, I looked forward to Tuesdays not just for the massage but for our coffee chats after. I think I can honestly say that this group was more for me than it was Lucia. As the term came to an end I was desperate to stay connected with these girls and luckily that felt the same. Words can’t even begin to describe how much I value each and every one of these ladies and their babies. They are always my go to for any advice, listen to me venting even when I didn’t realised I needed to. I always knew that I was going to have ‘mum friends’ when I got pregnant, but I never knew how much I needed them! Thank you spoons, without you me and Lucia wouldn’t have such amazing people in our life, hopefully for a long time!”

spoons-neonatal-peer-support

#MetalHealthAwarenessWeek #IveBeenThere #Lonliness

If you are a parent who has experienced neonatal care in Greater Manchester you can access any of our support or services by completing our Self Referral Form

Find about more about Spoons and how you can help us support families here