New parents tighten their belts

Parents are already cutting back significantly on going out and activities for children, according to the National Childbirth Trust.

Parents are already cutting back significantly on going out and activities for children, according to the National Childbirth Trust.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the NCT, says that since the beginning of January when the VAT rises came into effect. “It’s been quite a recent effect. It started around September, but it has been accentuated since Christmas. The VAT rises and the stopping of the Health in Pregnancy Grant are having a quick effect.”

She anticipates that this will escalate as all the different benefits and tax credit changes start coming into effect and if interest rates rise later in the year. “Housing benefit changes may mean families have to move to a smaller place and this can cause problems if you are moving with a new baby since you lose your social network and need to rebuild it quickly or you might become quite isolated,” says Phipps.

The NCT estimates an average couple with two children and one on the way, and a household income of £24,000 could already be seeing themselves close to £1,000 down on previous years’ income, with further cuts on the way later this year likely to have an impact. Already gone for them is the £190 Health in Pregnancy Grant and the £250 Child Trust Fund. The child benefit freeze kicks in in April, with the benefit taken away from any family with a higher rate earner; the £500 Sure Start Maternity Grant will be restricted to only the first-born child from April; housing benefits caps come in in April and families paying higher rate tax will lose around £41 per week tax credits from April, when credits are restricted to households earning less than £40,000.

Staying in
Phipps says people seem to be cutting down on things that they would have been happy to pay for with a new baby in the past, such as swimming sessions, paid baby gym classes and going out for lunch. “There is a danger that people will stay in to save money and become isolated and lonely. It is important that there are places they can go,” she says. These include having lunches at friend’s houses where everyone brings some food. Phipps says there has been a marked increase in people arranging walks in the park or going round to each other’s houses.

The NCT is also concerned about potential closure of Sure Start centres. The Daycare Trust is warning that around 250 may close. “We put sessions on in children’s centres at a lower cost. It’s quite worrying,” says Phipps. “We should not underestimate how important it is for mums to have someone to talk to. The rate of post-natal depression is high and isolation only contributes to that. A baby is not always good company and seeing other mums with babies can help allay fears about your baby and how you are coping. From the media you can get the impression that babies are always laughing and smiling. If you see other mums struggling or talking about the difficulties it can help you feel that you are normal.”

The NCT is trying to help its members with costs by freezing its fees, although it is not sure how sustainable this is long term. “We know that people are struggling plus a lot of what we do is run by volunteers,” says Phipps. “We were the Big Society before it was ever thought of.”.

She adds that the organisation is always looking for more volunteers and that this can help to build confidence if women have been out of the workforce for a while on maternity leave or through taking a career break to raise children. Volunteers do everything from organising nearly new toy sales to holding coffee mornings to befriending first-time parents.

The NCT is also helping parents struggling on reduced income through its various schemes such as bumps and babies groups to help new parents get together, information and support helplines, reduced price antenatal classes for low earners, nearly new sales and house swaps, which has been going since the 1970s which guarantees a cheap holiday in a child-friendly house. For house swaps, members just register their details online and look for a house in the area they want to holiday.

“It’s all about people helping each other out in difficult times and realising that you don’t have to have everything new and expensive. New parents are a fantastic target for the commercial work. If you sign up for baby clubs you will receive endless mailings,” says Phipps. “In any event a lot of things sold in our nearly new sales are actually new as people haven’t used them. It’s also worth remembering that children are often happier with a bowl of water and jugs or a den made out of blankets than with an expensive toy.”

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