Parent and child support programmes for young children

In emergencies, the highest mortality rates occur in newborns and infants – particularly in the acute phase of an emergency. Careful attention to pregnant mothers, infants and toddlers, and support for good practice to care and protect them, saves lives and has a lifelong impact on child’s health and development. It is important to focus on primary caregivers as they largely determine children’s responses to stressful events – young children who are fed, loved and tended to by their caregivers usually do well.

When should we use parent and child support programmes for young children?

  • From the early stages of an emergency for as long as support is needed
  • Where health services and other support systems for families with young children are limited or have been disrupted by the emergency
  • Where parents and caregivers may need psychosocial support to deal with the impact and consequences of the emergency and/or may be struggling to cope with caring for young children

How to set up a parent and child support programme

A combination of different approaches may be used to help parents to care for themselves and their infants. Activities should take place in a private and comfortable space for mothers to be able to nurse and play with their children.

Engage parents and their young children in shared activity sessions 

  • Provide play materials appropriate for children aged 0–3 years
  • Organise early stimulation and play activities for children that involve parents and carers. If possible, organise activity groups according to children’s age or phase of development: roughly 0–12 or 18 months (pre-verbal, not ambulatory) and 12 or 18 months to three years
  • Engage mothers in stimulating activities with their infants – Singing, storytelling, ‘talking’ (sound mimicking), playing games like peek-a-boo
  • During small group activities for families and their young children, parents have the opportunity to learn from the positive parent-child interactions of others with their children
  • Engage community members in sharing their knowledge – e.g. older women, elders to teach traditional songs and stories for younger children and to engage in discussions on topics of interest and importance to the young mothers

Share information about good practice in caring for babies and young children

  • Healthy child development
  • Good childcare practices
  • Parenting guidance and information
  • Immunisation and health information
  • Nutrition support
  • Mother/child activities
  • Early intervention for children with difficulties

Additionally, it is important to encourage the use of relevant skills and information at home, through regular discussions of what they have been doing differently at home and how it is going.

Provide psychosocial support and coping skills for parents

  • Children sense distress and so mothers should be helped to feel calm so that they can be calm when caring for their child; mothers should be supported to find ways to continue to interact with their babies even if they are very worried or very busy.
  • Caregivers must be able to cope with and respond to their own needs before they can provide a caring and nurturing environment for their children
  • caregivers should be given opportunities and support to talk with each other about their hopes, fears, and concerns for their children – organise gatherings during which caregivers of young children can discuss the past, present, and future, share problem solving, and support one another in caring for their children:
    • Hold small group discussions (4-5 mothers per group) on the following questions:
      • How has the emergency affected the way that mothers care for their babies?
      • What are the traditional ways that people in the community have for responding to their children during difficult or stressful times?
      • How do these traditions help children grow and learn?
      • Which of these traditions can be included in our activities?
      • What other activities can be done hereto help?
  • In this context, harmful responses to children’s behaviours may also be identified and alternative approaches suggested. Parents who have difficulties caring for their children because of mental health issues should be referred to appropriate mental health services, for certain mental illnesses may interfere with the caregiver’s ability to care for children.

Find ways to provide practical support for parents

  • You might provide possibilities for mothers to leave their young children in a safe place for example while they go to the distribution centre to receive food assistance
  • Signpost other support available
  • Support young children to access recreational, play and early childhood education activities (for example through a little friendly space or support for early childhood development)

Additional tools and resources

Information on this page is primarily taken from Plan International (2013), Early childhood care and development in emergencies: a programme guide and INEE (2009), Early Childhood Care and Development in Emergencies: Principles and Practice

Detailed activity guidelines for activities for young children can be found here: Unicef, Early Childhood Development Kit 

Also see Save the Children (2015), Teach Parents Emotional Intelligence: Parenting resources targeting parents of children aged 3-6 years old


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