Abstract The objectives of the present study were to examine the factors that parents identify as promoting or hindering participation in Sure Start programmes, and to identify methods for enhancing parents’ engagement with Sure Start. A qualitative, in-depth interview study was conducted with parents registered with two local Sure Start programmes based in the East Midlands, UK, and located in inner city areas with a range of health and social problems associated with social exclusion and disadvantage. Sixty parents, guardians or carers of children living in both Sure Start areas were recruited during autumn of 2004 on the basis of whether they were identified as a ‘frequent user’ or ‘non-frequent user’ of Sure Start services. The data were analysed using a thematic approach supported by NVivo computer software, and explanatory themes were subsequently tested for completeness and adequacy. The results of the study indicated that parents who used Sure Start services were positive about the benefits that they obtained for themselves and their children, in particular in overcoming a sense of isolation. Parents who were non-frequent users identified a number of practical reasons that prevented them using Sure Start services, although parents also recognised a loss of confidence and trust in the local communities summarised in the phrase ‘keeping myself to myself’. Parents’ awareness of the targeted nature of Sure Start can also lead to stigma and reluctance to use services. It is concluded that continued investment of time and effort in maintaining communication networks between Sure Start staff and local parents is vital if parents and children are to make the best use of Sure Start services.