In a small unit on an Inverness business park, a group of new mums swap tips about sleepless nights and weaning as they keep a collective eye on their youngsters.
The First Steps group is part of Connections, an early years project designed to prevent loneliness by bringing together young families in the rapidly-expanding neighbourhoods of Slackbuie and Holm on the city’s southern fringes.
In an informal and homely atmosphere, the babies – aged from a few weeks to a year old – roll about on a large quilt or have their feet painted for printing homemade Father’s Day cards while the mums grab a slice of homemade cake and cup of coffee.
The Connections project is run by the Inverness St Columba Church whose parish covers a largely affluent area stretching from Fairways Business Park down to Ness-side, encompassing the homes on the south side of the distributor road.
Comprising much new housing, properties are much-sought- after particularly among young families, but one thing is lacking – there is currently little in the way of community facilities.
Annette Maclean, the church’s community development worker, explained that in a bid to fill the gap, the church decided to rent a small unit at the business park.
Dubbed The Living Room, it provides a small community meeting space for local residents and groups as well as its own Connections project which holds weekly groups from pre-birth to three years old.
"We were really asking the question, ‘What does the local area need’ and how could our church be best serving in this area," Mrs Maclean said.
"We chatted with community leaders and with local health visitors who indicated there were a lot of young families with newborns and children under three years old. There are also a lot of dads working offshore so there are a lot of mums on their own for two or three weeks."
Having set up Connections three years ago, the project now runs three groups. In addition to First Steps, Next Steps provides activities, story telling and rhyme time for up to three-year-olds with their parents, grandparents and carers, while Mum’s the Word is a six-week series of one-hour sessions for pregnant mums to make new friends and build up support ahead of the birth.
Half the funding comes from the Church of Scotland’s Go For It Fund, which aims to encourage creative ways of working in transforming communities and congregations, and support has also come from Highland Council’s Inverness South discretionary budget.
"The project is a lifeline – that is what we hear," Mrs Maclean said. "I think it is making a massive difference to people. It is just about giving that point of contact.
"It is reducing isolation and recognising loneliness doesn’t always come at a stage of life when you are expecting it. Early parenthood can be a really isolated time."
Her own passion and enthusiasm for the project are partly driven by her own experiences. By the age of 21, she was mother to three children all aged under three and her husband worked long hours.
"If I hadn’t been able to go to toddler groups and connect with other people, I don’t know what I would have done," she recalled. "I also had the confidence to go out and do that."
But it gave her the insight that early parenthood can potentially be a lonely and isolating time.
The Connections groups are capped at 12 which make them more intimate and enable lasting friendships to develop.
"A few mums have said they would not have felt confident about going into a big hall," she said. "Having heard this was a smaller group, they felt it was a lot easier access."
She also stressed the membership was not restricted to those who attended church.
"I think there is only one mum who comes to church," she said. "It is very much for the community. It is preventing social isolation. It keeps the mums connected with other people in the same position."
On the general issue of loneliness and social isolation, she reflected: "In some ways, the arrival of social media has made society more connected but face-to-face connections seem to become less and less.
"Our homes are becoming places where we eat and sleep. The community networks we had in the street at one time are not necessarily as they used to be.
"People are not necessarily living near their families any more, we tend to find. Whereas you had your aunt, mum or sister around the corner, that is not the case any more."
She praised the Reach Out campaign launched by NHS Highland and The Inverness Courier to raise awareness of the problems and to invite everyone from individuals to organisations to make a difference.
"It’s excellent," she said. "It’s raising people’s awareness and asking the question, ‘What can I do?’ regardless of your lifestyle and age. This project is about reaching out to other mums."
Miriam Stone, mother to 10-week-old Ruairidh, is among those who attend the group.
"It is valuable to me to meet other mums and to chat with them about our babies," she said.
Andrea MacLennan, a mental health nurse and mother to eight-month-old Arran, said: "This group gives you a push perhaps to get out and about. It is a good support and you get tips and advice."
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