New research from Queen Mary University of London shows that WhatsApp groups can play a vital role in helping new mums negotiate their knowledge and expertise when transitioning to their new parenting roles. More crucially, such groups allow new mums to create support networks in a way in which conventional NHS services cannot.
The research, published in the journal Discourse, Context and Media, analysed WhatsApp communication between new mums affiliated with the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). The data consists of over 600 screenshots of naturally occurring WhatsApp conversations between a group of new mums. It was collected over a 13-month period and supplemented by semi-formal interviews. This is the first study of its kind to explore communications between new mums in a private context, providing a rare snapshot of genuine exchanges between mums in real time following the birth of their first child.
At a time when the health visiting services have largely moved online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the instant nature of the private WhatsApp groups, and the ‘always on’ character of the exchanges, can provide a round-the-clock support network in a way the NHS could not. The findings have implications for the services that new mums access, in particular relation to mental health, with participants stating that they felt under-prepared for the first weeks and months of looking after their new-born babies after attending NCT courses prior to becoming mothers. The research suggests that such WhatsApp groups can provide peer mental health support to new mums where their struggles would have been otherwise missed by the NHS health visiting services and GPs.
The study also shows that new mums tended to trust each other more than the advice given by health professionals, which was sometimes conflicting. Apart from mutual support, the group under study used WhatsApp interactions to claim and assign expert status to individual group members, share and evaluate existing medical and experiential knowledge, as well as prepare for interactions with health care professionals.
Where expertise and advice from professionals was received, it was ‘vetted’ by participants of group conversations. Expert status was also assigned and/or claimed by participants at different times based on personal experience and influenced by their babies’ birth timeline. For example, one mum, Grace, had her baby prematurely which positioned her as the most experienced of the NCT mums. Grace later communicated advice from the perspective of experience, advising others to ‘persevere with the breastfeeding’ and ‘try to nap when the baby sleeps.’
Another participant, Monica, became an expert on another aspect of new-born care, tongue-tie. Monica recounts her experience of attempting breastfeeding in the first hours post-birth and her decision to give up. She then explicitly brings in her dissatisfaction with the expertise available at the hospital where she gave birth (unrecognised tongue-tie) and goes on to advise the other mums accordingly. Monica’s experience helps them to be extra vigilant when their babies are born. Mums also shared intimate details of their experiences of motherhood in a way in which they may not have done in a more open setting. Dr Agnieszka Lyons, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and author of the paper said: “It’s telling when a new mum – Jill – turns to other mums, who have no more than 3 or 4 weeks of experience of child-rearing themselves, for their “wisdom.”
The research also has implications for women on lower incomes who would not be able to easily access paid NCT services. Dr Agnieszka Lyons added: “WhatsApp groups affiliated with paid NCT courses can make a world of difference to new mums struggling through the first weeks with their new-born babies. Adopting a similar model in the NHS perinatal context could have a huge potential for those mums who fall outside the usual NCT demographic and whose need for support can therefore slip through the net more easily.”