Watch a report by ITV News Anglia's Raveena Ghattaura
Parents have been left feeling isolated and forgotten about as face-to-face appointments with health visitors are scaled back in the wake of the pandemic.
Mums and dads told ITV News Anglia they feared health and development problems could be missed because of the lack of in-person contact for families following a birth.
It comes as the Home Start charity in Norfolk said it had seen a 75% increase in referrals since May 2020 as families went in search of more support.
The NHS trust which runs health visitor appointments for Norfolk and Cambridgeshire insists it is prioritising face-to-face contact with new parents and the most vulnerable families - but admitted it had had to make an increasing number of "judgement calls" to make its resources stretch.
Families should have appointments with health visitors around 10 days after a baby is born and then again at six weeks, a year, and again before they are three.
At the moment, Cambridgeshire Community Services Trust promises to make the initial visit in person for all first-time parents. After that, it has been replacing appointments with phone or video calls for all but the most vulnerable.
'They suggested maybe he had a brain tumour'
But at a parent and baby class in Norwich, first-time mum Rachael Harrison said she had not even had that early visit.
She believes weeks of worry about her son Teddy could have been eased if she had seen a health visitor sooner.
Having not seen anyone after a midwife appointment five days after giving birth, the primary school teacher flagged up a concern about her baby's eye with the doctor at a check-up six weeks later.
"He took one look at him and you could see it immediately on his face," she said. "The doctor immediately sent us up to the hospital for a brain scan. They suggested maybe he had a brain tumour."
It took 12 weeks of scans and appointments for that to be ruled out. But even then the family did not see a health visitor in person until Teddy was seven months old.
He is now 21 months old, but the family have had no contact about a one-year check - which is often being dealt with via a questionnaire sent out to parents.
"It was a little bit daunting, especially as a first-time mum," said Mrs Harrison, who gave birth just a month into the first lockdown. "It felt quite isolating and I really didn't know who to call on.
"Normally you would call on family and friends but they weren't allowed into the house. Health visitors weren't coming in. It really was just me and my husband trying to feel our way through the situation."
Families want more reassurance
The Harrisons are not alone. A national report published in November 2021 by three children's charities - Home Start UK, Best Beginnings and Parent Infant Foundation - found 30% of families told them health visitor drop-in clinics were no longer operating in their area.
It also found that across the country 28% were only getting telephone or online appointments, and 12% said baby and toddler groups were still not running.
First-time mother Sophie Herbert had her daughter two weeks before lockdown in 2020. She had an initial face-to-face appointment with a health visitor at home in Norfolk but felt cut off after that.
"We were pretty much left on our own at home," she said. "There was support on the phone but that was pretty much it. It was difficult because we didn't have anyone to reassure us and say 'you're doing the right thing'. It was tricky."
Laura Hogger, from Norwich, had Daisy in April 2020 and was grateful she had been through it before.
"The first time I saw a health visitor, she was maybe a year old, but that was because I phoned up and said I wanted to see somebody," she said.
"She's quite a small baby and had some issues that needed resolving. We needed to make sure she was developing alright - but it was all off our own bat to do that. There weren't any letters through the post or phone calls or anything."
'First-time parents and most vulnerable prioritised'
Matthew Winn, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Community Services, insists families can get support if they need it - and have access to online information and a phone line to contact a health visitor whenever required.
He said feedback from parents had suggested parents welcoming their second or third babies did not automatically want an in-person appointment and were happy with virtual ones or to seek out help when they needed it.
Mr Winn said it made sense to "de-prioritise" more experienced families to ensure new parents could be seen.
"Those have always been our judgement calls that our services have had to make and clearly, during the pandemic, we have had to make those more and more to make sure our resources are getting to the right families," he said.
Pressure felt across the board
The issue of stretching resources - whether that is due to problems with recruitment, staff isolating with Covid, or tightening budgets - is being felt by many of the organisations charged with supporting new families.
Daniel Williams, from Home Start Norfolk, works closely with health visitors, social workers and others and said "the whole system is under severe pressure".
The charity recruits volunteers to visit families at home and offer them support.
"We have seen a 75% rise in our referrals since May last year - since lockdown started unwinding," he said. "We now have a waiting list which, quite frankly, we are struggling to manage. We're very much in demand at the moment."