The rise of Britain’s baby banks: where to find your local baby bank and what to donate

More and more families are needing to use baby banks to get by.

Research shows that, this year alone, more than 35,000 families have used baby banks to obtain vital items such as bottles, clothes, cots, nappies, wipes, prams and pushchairs. Comparable to food banks, baby banks give away basic baby items – largely donated by members of the public – that are crucial to people in need.

But the people using baby banks are not only families living in poverty or those on benefits but those escaping domestic violence, refugees, families affected by the switch to Universal Credit and even working parents who can’t earn enough to cover rent, food and utilities on top of the necessities required to bring up a baby.

Former Labour welfare reform minister and Labour MP, Frank Field, told the Mirror, ‘All too many families are being crippled financially by the cost of basic items for their babies,’ adding that baby banks are a sign that show us ‘how the face of poverty is changing. It is hard-up families who are paying the price for the economic upheaval and austerity of the past decade.’

Find a baby bank near you

There are now more than 100 baby banks across the UK, including Little Village, which has three locations in London – in Camden, Southwark and Wandsworth – Stripey Stork that offers support in East Surrey, and Cascade Baby Bundles in Cheshire that helps families with children up to the age of 10. Type ‘baby bank’ into Facebook and dozens of organisations come up.

Clothes donated to Little Village baby banks in London (credit: Little Village HQ)

In 2015, Eva Fernandes and Dr. Becky Gilbert co-founded the Baby Bank Network that helps families in Bristol, Aberdeenshire, Exeter and the Isle of Wight. ‘Becky and I started the network in June 2015 and so far we’ve helped around 1,632 families and given away 6,217 items,’ says Fernandes, who also set up a Real Nappy Campaign and an ethical nursery store.
‘Everything we give out is donated by the public and has been used apart from things like mattresses, bottle teats and toiletries, which are purchased new [for health and safety reasons].’

Donating to a baby bank

If you’re keen to donate any baby items you now longer need, it’s worth contacting a baby bank near you to find which items they’re accepting, as many have srict guidelines. For example, everything that’s donated needs to be in good condition and some organisations won’t take things regarded as surplus to requirement. Baby Bank Network refuses items such as Bumbos [baby seats] ‘because they’re made from heavy plastic and not necessary, and baby door jumpers, because they’re not something babies need, unlike somewhere safe to sleep, clothes, nappies, slings and pushchairs,’ explains Fernandes.

Nappies and wipes donated to Little Village baby banks (credit: Little Village HQ)

Why baby banks are on the rise

While it’s safe to assume that Britain’s austerity measures are chiefly responsible for the rise in baby banks, Fernandes’ motives for co-founding the Baby Bank Network were more encompassing. ‘Various factors have contributed to the need for baby banks – austerity measures, the move to Universal Credit, Brexit – and there are always people that don’t have family or other connections to obtain such things, or refugee families that arrive with nothing, but even if poverty wasn’t an issue we’d still have done something. There’s a lot of waste being flogged to new parents, and there’s the environment to consider, so re-using items or passing them on makes sense.’

‘I believe that if we’d had such an option 20 years ago people would have used baby banks as they do today because it’s practical and sensible to pass stuff on that isn’t worn out,’ she adds. And while the thousands who contribute to baby banks are doing so largely for altruistic reasons Fernandes stresses that ‘some will also be donating from an environmental or lifestyle perspective.’

Although there are walk-in services, which are often run by church groups, people don’t tend to turn up without being referred first by health visitors, midwives, social workers, charities and other welfare professionals.

Fernandes describes baby banks as ‘a matchmaking service, really, because we act as a go-between between health and welfare professionals as well as refugee and domestic violence charities.’ It’s these professionals, she explains, that ‘identify the families who would benefit and put an order through depending on the baby’s age, which can be anything from a bag of clothes to the whole lot.’ Sometimes it can be a situation such as a mother going into labour early, or a new mum who didn’t even know she was pregnant and so needs everything quickly.

Emelynne used Baby Bank Scotland to clothe her children (credit: Emelynne Byers)

‘I’m so grateful… but it’s a shame so many parents are in need’

Emelynne Byers, 22, lives in Motherwell, Scotland, and is a single mum to 3½-year-old Maya and 1-year-old Cole. Emelynne used Baby Bank Scotland after facing a number of difficulties including post-natal depression, which resulted in her having to quit both her job and further education in Childhood Studies, and breaking up with the father of her children.

‘I applied for Universal Credit so that I could build myself back up and get back on my feet but there were some unexpected problems and I didn’t get payment [straight away]. I did ask for a crisis grant and was given a little money but it wasn’t enough to cover everything so I had to leave my house and move in with my mum,’ she explains.

Byers didn’t know about her local baby bank until a friend mentioned it, by which point she was in dire need. ‘I couldn’t afford clothes for my children but then my friend referred me and Baby Bank Scotland contacted me. I only used the service once but I received three huge bags filled with clothes for both of my children and a bag of nappies, which was all such a great help as my children had a growth spurt and I couldn’t afford any clothes or nappies for my son.’

‘Some of the stories we hear are quite harrowing,’ says Fernandes, ‘but hearing these motivates volunteers.’ Fernandes also believes baby banks ‘help health professionals who feel like they’re doing something practical – if they’re not able to help financially at least they can get hold of a cot and clothes.’

But if baby banks have become invaluable they’re also regarded as a mixed blessing for many parents, who feel like they shouldn’t have to use them at all. ‘I’m so grateful for Baby Bank Scotland’s help as I’m sure are all the other parents using it, but I would love to have not needed it,’ admits Byers, who has since donated everything back to help other families. Byers has also managed to resume her studies with Open University.

‘It’s such a great charity,’ she concludes, ‘but it’s a shame that so many parents are in need of this service. We all do our best for our children and the amount of shame I felt when I couldn’t provide clothes the right size for them was horrendous. There should be a lot more help for single parents to get them back into work so that in the future we won’t have to rely so much on baby banks.’