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Ireland: Mothers talking to mothers

©UNESCO/Niamh Burke
In Dublin, experienced mothers help young mothers as part of the Community Mothers Programme.

Early childhood care and education is the theme of the 2006 ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ to be launched by UNESCO and UNICEF on 26 October.

By Agnes Bardon in Dublin

October 2006 - For the last 20 years, in certain districts of Ireland’s capital, the Community Mothers Programme has been working with women who have just given birth to their first child. The innovation: experienced local mothers are the ones giving guidance to the beginners.

Not long ago, the district of Ballymun was just a series of dingy gray buildings bristling with television aerials, their stairwells splattered with graffiti. Unemployment and drugs were endemic. In the last few years, however, the impact of the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom has transformed even this working-class area, located some five kilometers from downtown Dublin. Little by little, the blocks of buildings were torn down and their occupants moved into cozy little houses. Even a luxury hotel has materialized and others are in construction. An unthinkable possibility eight years ago, when the Community Mothers Programme (CMP) implanted itself in the area.

Launched at the beginning of the 1980s, the CMP helps mothers who are giving birth to their first child to get off to a good start. It operates mainly in the less privileged parts of the city. The Programme is offered to all first-time mothers; choosing to participate or not is up to them. But in neighbourhoods like Ballymun, nearly 80% sign up. In 2005, more than 50% of the women enrolled in the Programme were single mothers and close to 10% were teenagers.

Discussions over coffee

Similar programmes exist, notably in the United Kingdom. What makes the CMP different is that it is run not by social workers or nurses but by mothers from the community, selected and trained by the Programme. They are volunteers, receiving only a small stipend to cover transportation. Once a month, over a period of two years, they visit the families. Casually, over a cup of coffee, they chat with the child’s mother about the little one’s progress or possible difficulties. “It’s working because it has one foot in formal education system and the other in non formal learning. The idea is for the parents to feel, at the end, like experts on their own children,” says Brenda Molloy, head of the Programme. Not putting health workers on the front line helps greatly in winning the trust of the young mothers. “The get-togethers are very informal. You feel very comfortable talking,” says Antoinette, mother of 4-month-old Tadhg.

© UNESCO/ Niamh Burke
Since the 1980’s, the CMP has been helping mothers give their children a good start.

Jean, 38, is lively, chatty and bursting with energy. She took advantage of the Programme when her first child was born, 12 years ago. Now she has become one of the visiting mothers in Ballymun. “We’re not there to impose anything on the mothers, we’re there to answer any questions they might have,” she explains. “For instance, is it normal that my child does this, or that he isn’t like that? We rely on our experience and common sense. And if there’s something we don’t know, we ask one of the Programme nurses.”

Measurable results

Another resource for visiting mothers is the documentation provided by the health services. With the help of diagrams, it explains why it is a good idea to speak lovingly to your baby, hold him in your arms, get him his vaccinations, and not give him too many sweets. “Really, these are things that seem obvious, but they’re not necessarily obvious if they weren’t passed on to you. I didn’t know, for instance, that it was so important to read stories to your children,” confides Siobhan, another Programme graduate who has now become one of the visiting mothers in Ballymun. As soon as a child is nine months old, therefore, mothers are encouraged to join the nearest library.

The CMP employs a dozen nurses and works with nearly 1200 mothers with an annual budget of 800,000 Euros. The results are already measurable. In 1990, the Bernard van Leer Foundation conducted a study with 232 women who were first-time mothers. Of those who had been involved in the Programme, 98% read stories to their children, versus only 54% of the others. Seven years later, a follow-up study with one third of the same women revealed that 50% of the Programme graduates were against slapping as an educational method, versus less than 25% among the others. “CMP” mothers are also more likely to supervise their child’s homework, limit time spent in front of the television, serve varied meals and take their children to the dentist. “It doesn’t seem like very much,” emphasizes Brenda Molloy, “but those few hours spent with the mothers can make all the difference.”

This article is from the October 2006 edition of the UNESCO Courier, “Learning is child’s play”. Reproduced from the UNESCO Courier and available at at:




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Early Childhood links

eDiscussion 1: Early Childhood Care and Education and Early Gender Socialization

UNESCO: Early Childhood

UNICEF: Early Childhood

The State of the World's Children 2001: Early Childhood