Sophisticated early parenting programmes, such as the US-based Baby Think It Over, could help reduce the number of pupils becoming parents in their teens. Elizabeth Buie reports
Electronic computer games, modelled on the popular Nintendogs and Babyz games, in which the player has to take care of animals or young children in a virtual environment, should be used more widely in schools to discourage teen pregnancies.
A report by the Scottish Government-appointed expert working group on infant mental health calls for better pre-pregnancy education in schools and the adoption of a parenthood syllabus for 11 to 16 year-olds.
Education for and about parenthood has in many cases been accorded low status in schools, argues the report.
Pupils have often had access only to poor or inappropriate resources, while some teachers and more academic students, particularly boys, have seen the subject as "irrelevant".
Inclusion of a programme covering infant mental health under the umbrella of parenthood in the personal and social development module of the 5-14 framework and its successor, A Curriculum for Excellence, could "ensure all young people have early exposure to the importance of relationships to infants and young children", it is argued.
"Even children who might be initially uninterested in discussing babies might become interested in the context of a more general framework of discussion about relationships."
The report argues that, given the popularity of computer games such as Nintendogs and Babyz, there is scope for professional input from health education experts to ensure the correct messages are being given via the electronic games.
The Babyz website invites players to "imagine being the best babysitter on the planet! You are the ultimate multi-task gal able to take care of a handful of kiddos all at the same time - from feeding, clothing and changing their diapers to taking them out for a stroll in the garden and putting them down for a nap. Feel a fever coming on? You can even check your babies' temp and give them cold medicine."
Similar "stop smoking" materials have been used in schools successfully, says the report. "If a commercial games manufacturer undertook the production and distribution of a more sophisticated game, then this could have a wider and sustaining impact," it adds.
The report claims the US-based Baby Think It Over programme, in which young people are given a realistic, computerised model baby to care for over 72 hours as part of a parenting education package in secondary school, has been shown to reduce the wish of teenagers to become parents at an early age.
While there is no UK evidence of the effectiveness of BTIO in preventing teen pregnancy, if used as part of a programme of personal and social education, it could provide a valuable source of realistic feedback on the demands of caring for a young baby before child-bearing, says the report. "Reduction of teenage pregnancy rates would reduce the number of infants suffering the adverse consequences of too early parenting," it adds.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said it expected children's services planning groups, NHS Boards and partners to consider and carry forward the recommendations, as appropriate for local implementation.
Parenting skills and the "attachment deficit", page 26.