Childhood Matters’ Child and Family Services recognise Infant Mental Health as crucial for the long term emotional and psychological wellbeing of children
Infant Mental health is the developing capacity of the child from conception to three years of age to:
- Experience, regulate and express emotions
- Form close interpersonal relationships with peers and adults
- Explore the environment and learn
Babies and infants develop in relationship to their primary caregivers. Research has shown that early experiences build brain architecture, with 90% of brain growth happening by 6 years of age. Memories develop young and are often non-conscious. Our brains are social and relational (e.g. we have mirror neurons which allow us to learn through imitation) and thus infants brains develop through interactions with their primary caregivers (parents/carers).
Attachment and Infant Mental Health
Infants develop positive mental health through receiving consistently responsive, sensitive and loving care from their parents/carers, so that they feel loved and secure. This is a central part of the attachment relationship, where the primary caregiver provides the infant with a secure base from which to explore and, when necessary, provides a haven of safety and a source of comfort. This teaches infants that the world is a safe place, helping them to develop ‘inner working models’ or representations of themselves as worthwhile and of relationships as safe and trustworthy.
Parental reflective functioning or mentalising ability also plays a key role in the developing attachment relationship and positive infant mental health. This involves parents and carers ability to recognise their infant’s behaviour in terms of their infant’s mental states (feelings, thoughts), which are separate and different from their own.
Attachment plays a key role in affect regulation (ability to manage feelings and emotions consciously and unconsciously). Attachment experiences impact on emotional regulation and how infants, children, adolescents, and adults, manage stress. Attachment styles where caregivers are expected to be unavailable or rejecting when needed [insecure attachment] can contribute to toxic stress and difficult with relationships and emotion regulation.
Insecure attachment can leave infants more vulnerable to emotional and psychological difficulties later in life, along with other factors such as genetic, developmental, abuse and trauma, and cultural/environmental factors.
Therefore it is important to support the developing attachment relationship between parent and infant, i.e. parent/carers ability to provide warm, loving, responsive and sensitive interactions with their infants, as well as their ability to think about their infant’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
What happens if infants or children do not have positive supportive early relationships?
- Infants can seem sad, lethargic, angry or even depressed
- They may develop eating or sleeping problems
- They may rely on themselves for comfort and nurturing
- They may seek attention from any adult, which may place them at risk
- They may not meet their developmental milestones
- They may have behavioural and emotional difficulties as they get older as they struggle with emotional regulation
- They may have very low self-worth, lack of confidence and self-belief
- When babies fail to elicit responses or are overwhelmed by intrusive responses, they will eventually stop trying to engage
Top tips for parents and carers
- Attunement means noticing and responding to our baby’s cues or signals to meet their physical and emotional needs.
- This involves learning how they communicate, such as:
their different cries
– their smiles
– when and why they stick out their tongue
– when they turn their head away (usually when they are tired or need a break)
– their little noises and babble sounds
– their sleepy signs
– how they move their bodies when excited or upset.
- All babies have different developing personalities (their temperament). Some babies can be slower to warm up or more sensitive to different environments.
- Keeping their environment calm and having a routine is important for all babies, but in particular for more sensitive babies, and new experiences should be introduced slowly for them.
- This means showing warmth and love to infants.
- It also means responding in loving ways when they are upset such as picking them up promptly, cuddling them and soothing them.
- This is part of helping babies to manage or regulate their emotions, called co-regulation.
- Parents and carers help their babies to manage their feelings by:
– Comforting them and helping them to manage their feelings through holding and talking gently to our babies: ‘there there, I know you have a pain in your tummy, I’m here’.
– Thinking about and showing our babies that we understand their feelings (or that we are trying to!).
– Responding in a timely manner – not leaving babies to ‘cry it out’ or in distress for a long time.
– Staying calm and taking care of ourselves as this can be hard.
- This involves ‘back and forth interactions between you and your baby, like a tennis match.
- Your baby ‘serves’ by reaching out for an interaction through eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, babbling or touch.
- The parent/carer responds in turn ‘returning the serve’ by noticing what your baby is doing or looking at, responding and talking to them, playing with them, or sharing a toy or laugh and allowing your baby to respond in turn again.
- Play is an important part of a parent-child relationship. Play is develops imagination and helps children to learn and make friends.
- Play may be difficult for some parents or they may not know how to play.
Some tips for play are:
– create a safe play environment with age appropriate toys within reach for your child
– following your child’s lead in play – watching what your baby is drawn to and what they find interesting
– talk to your baby about what they are doing and how they may be feeling
– following serve and return interactions (as above)
– reading, singing nursery rhymes and songs
– knowing that you are your child’s best toy!
- Consistent care is important for babies along with some routines (e.g. sleeping and feeding) for infants to predict what is going to happen next, which can help them feel more secure
- Parents and carers are not perfect and will make mistakes sometimes. What is important is that we try to repair this, by noticing if we have tuned out from our baby or are finding it hard to understand what they need or to comfort them. We can then show our baby we are still there for them.
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