Social Justice

How baby banks are fighting child poverty and empowering mums in the cost of living crisis

Baby banks are doing incredible work to help families, but it is tragic that they are so desperately needed in the cost of living crisis. They need donations to keep up with soaring demand

baby banks/ thea

Parents, predominantly mums, are getting their confidence boosted with the support from baby banks. Image: Little Village/ Olivia West

Marisha was seven months pregnant when her relationship broke down. She was about to be a single, first-time mum and she was scared. 

That was until her community midwife referred her to a local baby bank, which provides families with essentials like clothes, shoes, toys and baby equipment. They also empower parents, predominantly mums, with the support they need to thrive.

“I was heavily pregnant, so I got a home delivery,” Marisha, 32, says. “It felt like Christmas had come early. There were toys, books, and a breastfeeding pillow. There were things I didn’t even know I needed as a first-time mum.”

Marisha and her one-year-old baby girl feel like the baby bank is a “home away from home”. Image: Little Village/ Olivia West

There are more than 200 baby banks in the UK, all of which have seen rising demand in the cost of living crisis.

Little Village, which runs a baby bank network in London, receives a request for help every 45 seconds its referral form is open. The charity supported a record 5,815 families last year, including 8,529 children, but need outstripped their capacity. 

Sophie Livingstone, chief executive of Little Village, says: “It makes me extremely angry that we live in the sixth richest country in the world and families are in this position. It doesn’t need to be that way. We need some anger in society and some recognition that we won’t stand for this.”

Marisha was a project manager for an IT company and she never imagined she would be in a situation where she would have to claim benefits – but since being supported by the Little Village baby bank in Tooting, she no longer feels shame.

“I was apprehensive about what people might think, but everyone made me so comfortable,” she says. “Now it’s like a home away from home. I didn’t know what help was available but, once I had been in there, I felt okay to ask for help again.”

Baby banks are a welcoming environment for mums and their babies. Image: Little Village/ Olivia West

Marisha was signposted to local baby groups, benefits and the healthy start scheme, which helps mums on benefits buy essentials such as milk or fruit for young children. She was given a sling for her baby, without which she may not have managed the stairs to her flat.

Marisha was recently made redundant, and she will have to return to the baby bank again. “I’ve been a bit blindsided,” she says. “Now that I’m solely on benefits, I’m not sure how we’re meant to survive.”

Even after benefits are increased in April, a single person on universal credit will be left with a shortfall of around £30 each week, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

Families get extra support through the child benefit, but charities argue it’s not enough. The two-child limit means parents are not granted financial support for their third or subsequent children.

Livingstone says: “We need an end to the child benefit cap and benefits uprated properly. They haven’t been uprated properly with inflation so they are less than people need to survive. There are broader systemic issues around the lack of affordable housing and work that doesn’t pay properly. We need good infrastructure for the early years. Everything is underfunded and not working properly.”

Baby banks look like shops to give families the “dignity of choice”, Livingstone says. Image: Little Village/ Olivia West

The Ivy Street Family Centre in East London, which has a Growbaby scheme providing families with baby clothes and equipment, has also supported increasing numbers of people who may not have needed help prior to the cost of living crisis.

Claire Reay, the centre manager and Growbaby coordinator, says: “We’ve seen more requests from people who probably wouldn’t have needed us before. We’ve had more people in work coming to us. We just don’t get sufficient donations to give everybody what they need. We used to give out full packs of nappies and then we had to start splitting them because the demand was so huge.

“Every time somebody comes to us and we can’t help, it’s awful. It takes a lot for people to come to a charity and say they’re struggling. There’s shame and guilt, so for us not to be able to help them is not a great feeling. But we have good links with other organisations so we refer people on.”

Donations are neatly organised at the Ivy Street Family Centre. Donations are often brought in by the local community and mums themselves. Image: The Big Issue

Ivy Street prides itself on its warm and welcoming atmosphere. Many of the families are living in temporary accommodation, whether asylum seekers, facing homelessness or survivors of domestic abuse.

Families are also facing more benefit sanctions as the government continues its drive to push people into work – including parents with childcare commitments. Amid such challenges, baby banks and their community are stepping in to help.

“Families who use our playgroup, some of them are Growbaby clients, but they are almost without exception Growbaby supporters,” Raey says. “They bring their stuff in because they know we can use it and it’s going to somebody local who needs it. They might not be doing great themselves but they can still support another family.”

Thea and her third baby, who is five months. Her other children are nine and two. Image: Little Village/ Olivia West

Thea, a 38-year-old mum of three, says part of the joy of baby banks is that families can help each other. Babies grow so quickly that often some of barely gets used, but donating it to baby banks ensures that it’s going to a local family who will cherish it.

“It’s sad that we’re living in a time when parents need this,” Thea, who has been supported by a Little Village baby bank, says. ”I have a decent job. It should be enough to live comfortably and to not need help with things like baby clothes. But rents are crazy in the cost of living crisis. Inflation is crazy. Everything is expensive, so when there was a chance to get some things for free, I was like: ‘Definitely.’

“It was magical. They brought it to my house. When I was pregnant, I was still working. I was juggling so many things. I didn’t have time to go shopping. And also what contributes to the magic of it is that it’s so cute the way they put it together. They tied everything with ribbon. They threw in a few things for me, like shower gel. You could tell the people who put it together cared.”

Parents can look through the stock at baby banks as though they are in a shop, although everything is free. Image: Little Village/ Olivia West

Little Village is currently appealing for donations to help give mums a treat this Mother’s Day and beyond – that includes face and hair masks, body lotion and moisturiser, plus essentials such as shower gel, toothpaste and shampoo. People can also give their time by volunteering, or by donating quality, pre-loved baby items.

Elizabeth Knowles, the manager at Little Village’s Camden branch, says they are always in need of big equipment like Moses baskets and cots. Her baby bank, which has been newly re-homed, looks like a boutique children’s clothes shop. This gives mums the “dignity of choice” when they often don’t have a choice, while they also deliver bundles – including to refugee accommodation.

This is the newly rehoused Little Village baby bank in Camden. Image: Little Village/ Olivia West

Knowles has seen demand grow over her seven years at the baby bank. “We grew very quickly and we just had to stop for a minute and take a deep breath,” she says. “It gets unwieldy and unmanageable, and there’s part of you that wants to keep growing so you can serve more people. But you can’t let it fall to pieces because then you serve no one.”

Knowles is proud of their work. Before 10am on a Monday morning, they had helped more than 50 families by delivering big bundles. “I love the idea that we might change lives a little bit. I think that’s an incredible thought.” 

Marisha and Thea agree baby banks changed their lives. There are still struggles as the cost of living crisis continues, but they are now empowered to ask for help.

“Life is still a huge maths problem,” Thea says. “I’m constantly thinking about money. But other than that, the kids are doing well. We have what we need. They have clothes, they have toys. My kids don’t know there’s an economic crisis. They’re in this bubble of having a happy childhood.”

Find out how to donate to the Ivy Street Family Centre’s Growbaby scheme here. Find out how to donate to a Little Village baby bank here – you can donate by post, by booking a collection or at your nearest Little Village donation point. You can also donate money or find out how to volunteer.

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