Peer support is a flexible concept used in healthcare across diverse areas to describe the activities of individuals acting in a non-professional capacity offering support to others with whom they have some experience in common. There is little research on peer supporters and women supported in the context of the transition to parenthood and disadvantage. This study particularly focuses on peer support for women experiencing a range of vulnerabilities during pregnancy and the postnatal period, in projects which assigned trained volunteers to individual pregnant women. There were three core elements to the volunteers' support in these projects: active listening, providing information, and signposting to local services in the area. Many also offered practical support.
This was an descriptive qualitative study, informed by phenomenological social psychology, exploring experiences and perceptions of giving and receiving voluntary peer support during pregnancy and early parenthood in England, with a particular focus on disadvantaged women. Participants took part in semi-structured, audio-recorded interviews, the transcripts of which were analysed using thematic analysis.
Forty-seven volunteers and 42 mothers were interviewed, from nine peer support projects. The overarching themes identified were (1) 'What is peer support?', containing two themes: 'befriending or mentoring', and 'responding to the individual'; (2) 'Who is a peer supporter?', containing two themes: 'someone like me', and 'valuing difference'; (3) 'The peer support relationship', containing five themes: 'a friend or a 'professional friend', 'building relationships of trust', 'avoiding dependency', 'managing endings', and 'how peer supporters differ from professionals'.
A variety of models of volunteer peer support have been offered to pregnant women and new mothers in England. All create a structure for meaningful relationships of trust to occur between volunteers and vulnerable women. In the absence of agreed definitions for the nature and boundaries of peer support during pregnancy and early parenthood, it is important that projects provide clear information to referrers and service users about what they offer, without losing the valued flexibility and individuality of their service.