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Mum's the word

Think local

There's no doubt the Northern Beaches is in the midst of a baby boom. Visit any harbourside park, cafe strip or shopping centre and it often seems like every other person has a child in their arms.

Around 1,500 babies are born at Manly and Mona Vale hospitals each year, according to the Northern Beaches Maternity Service, a division of NSW Health's Northern Sydney Local Health District (NSLHD). Many more are born to local families at public and private hospitals in other parts of Sydney.

Upon discharge from hospital, all new parents in NSW are referred to their local early childhood health centre (ECHC) - a free service operated by NSW Health.

On the Northern Beaches, ECHCs are located at Avalon, Balgowlah, Dee Why, Frenchs Forest, Mona Vale, Narrabeen and Freshwater.

ECHCs are staffed by trained health professionals and registered nurses who specialise in child and family health. The centres provide information on and help with breastfeeding, coping with sleeping and crying problems, immunisations, safety, and babies' growth and development.

They also facilitate parents groups, in which new parents of similarly-aged babies meet weekly for usually four weeks for structured talks on different parenting topics.

In addition, ECHC nurses visit all new parents within two weeks of the birth of their babies to conduct a health and development check and assist with any questions or concerns the parents may have.

Many feel ECHCs are vital as they can provide valuable support to sleep-deprived and anxious new parents.

However, it has now been reported that peninsula mothers can wait almost six weeks for an appointment at their local ECHC, sparking calls for the state government to allocate more funding and resources to the centres.

At the time of writing, Avalon, Mona Vale and Dee Why ECHCs have the shortest wait time of all Northern Beaches suburbs for a scheduled appointment - five or six days.

It's a two-week wait at Freshwater, 15 days at Frenchs Forest and 20 days at Narrabeen, while the next available appointment at Balgowlah is nearly six weeks away.

A NSLHD spokesperson says the increased wait times are the result of "irregular elevated birth rates". "At times of peak demand, wait times may increase. Staff report increased wait times to management, who may reallocate staffing to address these," she explains.

NSW Health advises new parents to "take your child to the child and family health nurse at your local ECHC or to your doctor," for health and development checks at four weeks, eight weeks, six months, 12 months, 18 months, two years, three years and four years of age. The checks are free at an ECHC, but GPs may charge a consultation fee.

However, some local mothers who have been unable to secure a timely appointment for these checks at their local ECHC also report being turned away by GPs.

"GPs are an important partner to NSLHD in the care of babies and children and their families, however individual service provision decisions are at the discretion of these independent clinicians," the NSLHD spokesperson tells Peninsula Living.

A spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners was unable to comment on local situations.

All peninsula ECHCs also offer weekly drop-in breastfeeding clinics, as well as one or two book-on-the-day 'self-appointment' sessions each week, although the number of these has been dramatically reduced.

"The changes to the number of self-appointment sessions being offered is primarily due to underutilisation, and these sessions have been replaced with additional booked appointment slots," the NSLHD spokesperson explains.

"However, the centres remain responsive to client needs and this demand will be monitored."

The long wait for ECHC appointments is "very troubling", according to Catherine Knox, CEO of The Gidget Foundation, which raises awareness of perinatal anxiety and depression.

"If you're waiting more than five weeks, that's the amount of time where something that might have been a straightforward problem can develop into something a lot worse," Ms Knox tells Peninsula Living.

"The catchphrase with this area of health is 'early intervention'. If women don't get the support they need quickly, that anxiety absolutely can spiral into depression. If they have to wait a few weeks, everything can feel totally out of control."

Anxiety and depression during the postnatal period - from pregnancy to one year after birth - affects up to one in seven mothers and one in 10 fathers, or nearly 100,000 families in Australia each year.

Ms Knox believes it is important to acknowledge that ECHO staffs are "highly skilled and wonderful people", but more funding and staff are required to properly serve the local community.

"They don't need to improve - the centres just physically need to be open more hours and have more resources there," she says.

It is particularly important for the Northern Beaches, she adds, because a large proportion of residents have relocated here from other parts of Australia or overseas and lack family support.

"Being a mother in Sydney today can often be a lonely experience. I think the most important thing outside of better access to ECHCs is to try to create a bond with other parents of children of similar ages," Ms Knox says.


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