Why Health Visitors Matter

"She made sure we knew that she and her team were still there, for whatever we needed."

by Eleanor Campbell, ABM BFC and IBCLC

Let me tell you about Priscilla.

When my second daughter was born, I assumed the health visiting team wouldn’t be terribly interested – second time mum and all that. I was wrong. Priscilla breezed into our world like a ray of sunshine. She brought a huge smile and a happy demeanour. She remembered my elder daughter’s name – and that she looked like her dad. She praised me, built me up, and made me feel that I was not just coping, but doing a good job.

When my third daughter arrived, at the height of COVID, Priscilla was there for me again. Her warmth shone through the layers of PPE she had to pull on and strip off at every visit. She made sure we knew that she and her team were still there, for whatever we needed. Again, she remembered my older daughters, and showed a genuine interest in how they were adjusting and coping.

I was privileged to have Priscilla in my life. Adjusting to being a new parent is a transformation like nothing else. Health visitors like her hold your hand through the first unsteady steps, until you can confidently stride out on your own. Knowing that they are there allows you to put aside the 4am anxiety about “is this normal” “am I doing this right”, because you know where to ask for an answer you can trust. They are our safety net, to catch us if we stumble, and be able to spot problems before they become overwhelming. They are our cheerleaders, to remind us how well our babies are doing. They are a space to be vulnerable, knowing that they are listening to you without judgement.

Lately, so many of us who work in infant feeding are seeing what happens when you remove the safety net. Cuts and under-staffing have meant cancelled clinics, reduced visits, and fewer HV interactions for families. We are seeing babies whose growth is faltering who haven’t been weighed, so nobody knew. Babies who should be seen every week, according to NICE guidance, who are seen every three weeks because the HV team is relying on an overworked skeleton staff. We see so many families where a quick tweak to the latch at clinic could have saved weeks of pain, infections due to skin damage, and distress. Sadly, we also see so many families stop breastfeeding before they are ready, because they don’t know if feeding is going well, and they don’t have the trusted sounding board of a Priscilla to praise them, reassure them and make them feel safe.

Of course, this isn’t limited to feeding. I’m sure other professions are seeing the same for allergies, illnesses, speech or motor development problems, or parent’s mental health, because health visitors do all of these things and so much more. They can raise a warning flag at the first fork in the road, before we have wandered for miles down a blind alley. To remove our early warning system, to underfund and undervalue it, seems short-sighted in the extreme.

Everyone needs a Priscilla.

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