Mums online: The rapid rise of the keyboard coffee morning
For many new mums, parenting forums are the modern 'mothers and babies' groups. But are virtual friendships just as beneficial as real-life ones?
It's three am and you're standing in the kitchen in your PJs with your hair full of sick and a new-born who won't stop screaming.
What do you do?
Traditional mother-and-baby groups tend not to be held in the early hours of the morning, obviously, but as increasing numbers of young mums have discovered, social media is always open for business.
For mum-of-four Lucinda Carty, it was a godsend. When her first child Alexandra, now six, was a baby, Carty says she found huge support on the Irish parenting website Magic Mum: "You can have as many parent-and-toddler groups as you want, but none of them are open at 3am when you're sitting on the stairs crying.
"The loneliest hour is between 3am and 4am, but you can put a message out there asking if anyone else is up and people come on and say, 'Yeah, I'm up with my baby too'. And suddenly you're not alone anymore!"
Stillorgan-based Carty, who now has four children between the ages of six and 20 months, developed solid friendships with a circle of Magic Mum members which continue to this day.
"There's a group of us who all met on Magic Mum about four years ago. We're very good friends and we've met a number of times."
In recent years the website has noticed a significant growth in mothers using social media to connect, says Magic Mum editor Catherine Carr. "You can turn to it any time of day; you will know someone is there. There's a beautiful sense of community there," she says adding that often specific groups of mums will form.
"You'd have those with June 2015 babies, for example and they'll support each other as they go through pregnancy and the pre-labour nerves. Later on they'll have the late nights and be up with feeds and have a ready-made group of mums going through exactly what they're going through," says Carr, whose website, set up around a decade ago, has more than 36,000 members.
"There's a big support system there in a way that Facebook and Twitter are not," because, she says, it allows mums to get things off their chest anonymously. "Feelings that you might not feel confidence about expressing to family or friends," she says.
The UK parenting website Mumsnet has about 280,000 Irish members, and according to its CEO Justine Roberts, it often provides a much-needed shoulder for harried young mums to cry on - and acts as a catalyst for real-life meet-ups: "Sites like Mumsnet provide some things that are very different from traditional face-to-face gatherings.
"If your toddler is going stir-crazy and you need to get out, or you want some mates with children of similar ages so that they can start playing together (or, more realistically, argue over toys) then a toddler group or coffee morning is obviously your best bet.
"But if it's 2am and your new-born won't latch on properly, you can start a thread on Mumsnet and you'll have responses - sometimes from people living on the other side of the world - almost instantly."
Furthermore, says Roberts: "Many of our users make real-life friendships via Mumsnet and people arrange offline face-to-face meet ups all the time."
Although the Irish MummyPages.ie has been on Twitter since 2009, it's only in the past nine months that the website has started to use the hashtag #MummyPagesChat to provide a regular forum for mums to converge and connect with one another on Twitter, explains Laura Haugh of MummyPages.ie.
"Since we started #MummyPagesChat nine months ago, the feedback has been phenomenal. We never expected the powerful reaction from our mums.
"Our mums say that the best thing about chatting on Twitter is that it is in real-time, much more accessible and a fun way to link in with other mums."
With millions of mums now on Twitter, says Haugh, hashtags like #mums, #breastfeeding, #parenting and #newmum are a constant focus of conversation.
"The #breastfeeding or #newmum Twitter chats give mums the ability to ask questions and chat with other mums who have the same questions or concerns and get an answer quickly."
Each morning throughout her maternity leave, Longford mum Gráinne Reid would put her new baby down for a nap around 10.15am and switch on the kettle.
Cuppa in hand, she'd then touch base with other mothers all over the country via Twitter during the special one-hour #MummyPagesChat session.
Grainne (35) and a social care worker, is a fan of social media - she's used Facebook and Rollercoaster for years, and more recently, the #MummyPagesChat forum.
"I did go to mother-and-baby groups while I was on maternity leave," she says, "but they were groups I encountered through my social media contacts. Now that I'm back at work, I maintain the friendships but I don't get to the meetings as often."
Instead, says the mother-of-two girls aged four and 12 months, she makes a point of going online to enjoy the #MummyPagesChat Tuesday evening sessions from 9pm to 10pm.
"It features a lot of working mothers who talk about the struggle of juggling a family and career and we have a good laugh as well!
"We've got to know each other so for me what started out as a chat with mums through Twitter has grown into a big support network of friendships with people some of whom I have met face to face."
And if she's on a day off, she will still log on for that morning Twitter catch-up.Reid has met up with some of her online pals in real life, too - she says that together they have formed a strong and supportive network of friendships.
Social media is a big support for young mothers, she believes. "There's great advice about children and parenting because everyone brought some level of expertise to the table, from tips on sleeping to weaning and sickness."
Traditional extended family networks have changed in recent years, believes Anne O'Connor, clinical psychologist and a founder of the popular Irish website Rollercoaster, founded in 2000, and which now has 250,000 members.
"Mum is no longer around the corner - while family networks are not as physically close as they used to be," she says, adding however that most people still have "an innate social drive" to meet with others.
Hence she found that although the whole premise of founding Rollercoaster was initially all about providing good quality parenting information, the social element quickly exploded.
"If you look at how people use our website, it's about interacting, and members also use it as a means to meet up physically out in the world. There are a number of groups which would have grown out of their initial contact on Rollercoaster."
The UK parenting site Netmums has noticed a big rise in its Irish membership in the last three or four years - it's now 40,500 up from 17,500 in 2010.
"Our most active threads are with young women who are in their twenties and thirties who are growing up with technology," says Rachel Burrows, Editor at Large.
"These are the millennials and they are connecting," she says. "We're no longer living in situations where it takes a village to raise a child, so it can be lonely for parents and isolating.
"However, people are still doing the mother-and-toddler group. It's a mix of both. People still need to get out of the house and things like toddler groups and activity groups are great for local mums - they are invaluable and can give structure to your day."
While social media is a superb facility, agrees child and adolescent psychologist Kate Byrne, it should never replace traditional outlets like mother-and-baby groups: "You need the face-to-face. You need to be around people because being a new mother can be very isolating.
"Turning to social media as your only social outlet is very isolating," she says. "Many friendships spring up from locally-based mother-and-baby groups. On social media such people are often not local. When you are in the same locality there is more opportunity for meeting people, after all what are the chances of having friends you can pop around to for a cup of coffee if you are feeling despondent and in need of adult company - when your website friends are scattered all over the country?"
Mums on social media: the numbers
280,000 Irish members
40,500 Irish members