The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge bonded with fellow parents this afternoon over the struggles of sleep deprivation, breastfeeding and glitter.
The Royal couple, who have three children, put all their parenting skills to the test at the St Joseph’s Sure Start facility in Ballymena, as they navigated toddlers, tantrums and messy play with aplomb.
Speaking with parents, they praised mothers who had overcome the “struggle” of breastfeeding, and disclosed they choose to get up in the night whenever Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis wake instead of relying on their staff.
Sitting on child-sized seats to play with toddlers, the Duchess gently drilled youngsters on the delights of healthy vegetables, while the Duke kept a close eye on paint pots threatening to spill on their clothes.
The visit came at the end of a two -day trip to Northern Ireland, in which they have focused on child development. Their SureStart visit began with a private meeting with mothers, who shared their experiences with the programme.
Next, they joined a “stay and play” session and a mens’ support group, where they crouch on comically tiny seats to get down to toddler-eye level.
“This is a small chair,” the Duke observed. “It’s a good job I’ve still got flexibility.” The Duchess joined straight in with some make believe, blowing out the candles of a pink plasticine cake offered to her by a small girl.
Perhaps mindful of her position as a role model, the Duchess invited a little boy who seemed keen to talk to her to sit down next to her for an earnest conversation about the vegetables in front of them on the table.
“Do you like carrots? Yummy yummy,” she said. “I like carrots too. Do you know what’s special about carrots? They can make you see in the dark! “Do you like broccoli? What’s your favourite vegetable?”
Told, naturally, that the little boy did indeed like carrots and broccoli, she said: “wow!” Prince William, turning his attention to the parents, praised the “shared experience” offered by the centre, with Sure Start enduring in Northern Island even as centres were shut in the UK.
“When families are not necessarily as big as they used to be, it’s important that you all have friends here to talk about those shared experiences,” he added. In a colourful main hall, excitable toddlers moved between tables of sensory play as they parents and key workers kept a close eye on any brewing tantrums.
The Duke and Duchess went their separate ways to join different tables: he with hatching dinosaur eggs and she with some building blocks and gardening.
William dodged plastic dinosaurs being flown at his head while Kate, accepting flowers from one-year-old James McNally, calmly steered a half-chewed bread stick away from her hair.
The Duke, presumably belying his own experience at Kensington Palace, warned one child “mind the jumper!” as he veered dangerously close to the poster paint “You’ll never get it clean,” he empathised with watching parents. “And the glitter will get everywhere.”
Spotting a farmyard scene on the floor, with squashed cornflakes masquerading as soil, he appeared to consider taking the idea home before noting: “Actually looking at that mess, I might leave it.”
Speaking afterwards about the visit, Kathryn Ward, a 26-year-old mother-of-two, said the Duke and Duchess had bonded with fellow parents over their mutual experience of nighttimes.
“They were chatting a bit about sleep deprivation,” she said. “Even though they get the help that they have, they’re still parents as well and want to get up with their own kids.
“So they understand the stresses and pressures were going through, even though they got a couple of people more hands on.
They were fantastic. Really on our level.” Rebecca White, 26, said: “They were really encouraging about breastfeeding.
“They said we were all doing a good job, that it was really hard, it was a struggle and well done for keeping going. “ Asked whether the royal visitors expressed their support for the Sure Start programme, Ms Ward said “absolutely”.
“They are particularly interested in mental health support,” she said. “For us being part of this, I really jumped at the opportunity because I really cannot believe they could be closed down in parts of the UK. It’s an essential part of our lives.
“In an age where everyone is critical and there’s social media and you feel judged in general, it’s a great idea to have a space like this where there’s no pressure and no judgment. It should be available to everyone.
“They were saying it’s really hard to be parents, especially single parents.
“So they said it’s great that there’s something there to give added support, especially for people that are isolated or don’t have family support.
“Being a parent and the hard work people have to put into being a good parent is not really recognised enough.
“He [William] was congratulating us for coming here and being a part of this because it was the best thing we could do when we realised we needed the help.
“We’re trying to be our best selves and got some encouragement for that. “And we can all tell our kids now that the future king thinks we’re great parents.”
Sure Start is a programme supporting parents with children aged under four years old who live in disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland. In England, a study by the Sutton Trust published in April found that as many as 1,000 of the centres have closed since August 2009.
Sure Start children’s centre initiative was introduced in 1998 by the then-Labour government, in an effort to give all children a good start in life by offering support to their parents.
The BBC reported: “The report also says closure rates vary across the country, creating a postcode lottery of provision, with more local authorities preparing to make cuts in the coming financial year.
“The researchers asked local authorities why provision had been cut back and found 84 per cent cited financial pressures.”