We are currently undertaking a unique action research project in partnership with Essex County Council, exploring how public library-based activities for pre-school children can positively impact maternal mental health.  The project is funded by Arts Council England.

In the UK one in five women during pregnancy or in the first year after the birth of their baby, experience mental health problems ranging from mild or moderate depression and anxiety to post-natal depression.  Research also shows that first-time mothers are most at risk.

Our project involves library service staff, managers, and the public, and is taking place in the normal schedule of Essex libraries’ story and music sessions for under 5s – usually known simply as ‘rhyme times’.  The intended beneficiaries are mothers with mild to moderate anxiety and depression, although the activities benefit everyone who attends – fathers, other adult carers, the children themselves.

Almost every public library service runs story and music sessions, and nationally their reach into the pre-school and parental population is massive.   But the format and quality of rhyme times also varies greatly.   During this project we have worked with frontline staff to design and implement a more consistent and evidence-based rhyme time model.   Central to the research have been a series of evidence-based ‘modifications’ to Essex libraries’ normal routine e.g. making sure everyone says hello to the person next to them (to support those who are finding it hard to socialise), and having a face-to-face song during every session (because looking at your baby while playing can provide a dopamine boost).

Our central research questions are:

  • Do ‘rhyme times’ have a positive effect on maternal mental health and if so, how and why?
  • What is the reach of these activities and can it be increased?
  • Can a more structured approach to rhyme times be implemented consistently in a public library context?

Our early findings suggest that adult carers, and mothers in particular, experience mental well-being benefits from attending rhyme times.  We have also found that in Essex, most carers attending rhyme times are mothers, and most of those are first-time mothers.  In terms of benefits to mental well-being – the most common reasons given by mothers attending our modified sessions are that the sessions:

  • provide structure to the day and encourage mothers to get out of the house which in turn reduces stress
  • lead to feelings of happiness and satisfaction in seeing their child’s developmental progress from week to week
  • provide enjoyment from social singing and reading in a relaxed, neutral and welcoming setting, and
  • offer a low stress opportunity for adult company and conversation which can also provide new social connections.

The project has been overseen by an advisory group of national experts from libraries, psychology, and public health. The research ends in March 2018 and by Summer 2018 we will have the final results.

For more information about this project and to be kept in touch with the findings please contact charlotte.boulton@sharedintelligence.net