4th April 2017
Few of us can remember the first two or three years of our life. Despite this, we now know that the nature and quality of our early life experiences are very important and can have lifelong consequences. It is during this stage of our development that the foundations for positive mental health and wellbeing across the lifespan begins. Our early experiences really do matter. Infants are very social beings who come into the world ready and expecting to establish a relationship. Therefore, it is important there is a significant adult person, most often the parent, ready and waiting to respond and attune to this relationship with them.
What is infant mental health? Infant mental health refers to how well a child develops socially and emotionally from birth to age three years. This includes their capacity to express and regulate their emotions, begin to form relationships, and explore their environment. When one hears the phrase ‘infant mental health’, there may be a tendency to be concerned that is it connected with mental illness and be puzzled as to how the term mental health could be associated with the stage of infancy. Others may not realise that infants can experience very strong emotions long before they have words to express what they are feeling. In these early years, children cannot manage their feelings on their own – they need their parents and other caregivers to help them soothe, settle and manage these feelings. What qualities of the parentchild relationship are key to infant mental health? Infants need a trusting, secure and reliable relationship with their parents or main caregiver. The infant can recognise these qualities through the way they are held, talked to, touched, and cared for. These early interactions during the first weeks, months and years of life are very important and prepare the way for strong, healthy social and emotional health and wellbeing across the lifespan. I’m a parent - what can I do to promote my infant’s mental health? There are a number of important interactions that help to support and promote infant mental health: • Make time to connect and communicate with your baby- through smiling, talking, touch and massage. • Take time to understand your baby’s behaviour – this will enable you to think about what your baby is experiencing which will make it easier for you to respond to their needs • Respond to your baby when they are unsettled. This isn’t ‘spoiling’ them, you are helping them return to a calm emotional state. When you respond, it will help stop this behaviour from escalating, and support your child in developing self-soothing and coping skills. • Follow your baby’s lead - looking away and small blinks are ways your baby shows you that they may need a rest. A soft soothing voice or gentle cuddling in your arms can help settle and soothe your baby. • Babies need sensitive, responsive caregiving environments. You can make this happen by making sure your responses and routines with your child are nurturing and predictable. • Be mindful of your own feelings and experiences as a parent. This is important for your own self-care, but what you are going through can also impact on your child. Remember, parents don’t have to be perfect, babies just need their parents to be good enough. Why is infant mental health so important? We now have considerable research that tells us that the first three years of life provide the foundation for a child’s social and emotional health and wellbeing. Positive social and emotional development in infancy can also have an impact on children’s cognitive development– when a child feels safe and secure, they are better equipped to learn from their day to day experiences. When infants are provided with predictable and nurturing caregiving environments they are afforded the best possible opportunity for optimal development. This enhances their capacity to make healthy transitions into education and to sustain their positive health and wellbeing across later developmental stages of childhood, adolescence and adult life. Which is why it is essential that infant mental health is recognised and understood with the same importance as infant physical development. In our next article on Infant Mental Health we will explore: Developing Your Relationship with Your Baby This article is produced as part of The Nurture programme – Infant Health and Wellbeing which will build on the existing Child Health programme, strengthening a cohesive, integrated Child Health and Wellbeing service for children aged 0-2 years and their families. Useful links www.hse.ie/caringforyourbaby www.yourmentalhealth.ie publichealth.hscni.net/publications/gettingknow-your-baby Your-baby.org.uk www.zerotothree.org www.developingchild.harvard.edu www.albertafamilywellness.org #ourhealthservice