The first few years of a child’s life is critical for forming a person’s emotional, physical, social, educational, and cognitive development. Experiences children have in the earliest years of their lives impact the development of their brains. That is why “understanding early trauma” is the theme of this year’s Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs from June 13-19, 2022.
Infant mental health is an often overlooked and misunderstood subject, which is why the awareness week provides an opportunity to discuss the importance of babies’ mental health as well as the issues that affect it.
Experiencing trauma, such as exposure to domestic abuse, in the earliest years can have a significant impact on brain development. It has the potential to create serious and lasting consequences that can create difficulties for a child into their adult years.
It is not inevitable, however. Secure relationships with parents and carers can reduce stress caused by trauma and limit the long-term impact it has on the baby’s development. Specialist support and early intervention can also help to strengthen these relationships, reduce harm, and change the path for babies.
Importance of infant mental health
Childhood is a time of rapid development, and the experienced had in that time shape the adults we will become. Parents, carers, and other significant adults play an important role in a child’s development, and in building and protecting their mental health and wellbeing. Most children with good mental health will carry it with them through life. However, according to Beyond Blue, about one in seven children in Australia experience a mental health condition during childhood and those children need to be better supported, given half of all mental health conditions in adulthood begin before the age of 14. Beyond Blue states the signs and symptoms of poor mental health need to be recognised earlier so the appropriate supports can be in place sooner.
The start of mental health
The need to nurture a child’s mental health starts when a baby is in the mother’s womb. A baby’s brain forms more than a million neural connections every second. Furthermore, there is research to suggest a baby’s brain develops more in the first five years of a person’s life than at any other time.
The research is complex, but to look at in more simple terms:
• If a child spends the first years consistent with negative experiences such as abuse, neglect, or lack of resources, it’s likely that baby’s developing neural pathways will be associated with survival.
• When children feel safe, calm, and protected, neuronal pathways form which are essential to future learning and growth.
Role of bonding
The bonds formed between infants and their caregivers is so important for their future mental health. Some steps to support the nurturing of babies and helping their mental health include:
1. Constantly talk to your child, positively and calmly. They model their expressions from you, so be a good role model from the start.
2. Create a healthy, safe smoke-free home. Limit alcohol (drink responsibly), and ensure they have healthy, nutritious meals. They are dependent on you for their every need.
3. Manage stress. Even if they don’t understand what is happening, babies and children are impacted by stressful events and watch how their parents and caregivers react. If it is negative, they may develop emotional, behavioural, or developmental problems. For support to manage stress, talk to your doctor or a counsellor, or utilise online resources such as through websites Raising Children, Beyond Blue and the Better Health Channel.
4. Be a responsive care giver, ensuring your baby feels heard and listened to. Make eye contact with your baby so they know you’re listening or interacting with them even if they are crying, babbling, or laughing. Letting your baby cry for extended periods without anyone appearing to notice prolongs stress and can have long-term effects.
5. Help them explore, play, and learn. Joy, laughter and having fun are important to their learning. Even if they can’t speak yet, singing songs, counting their fingers and toes, and playing peek-a-boo, enhances bonds, and these activities are also considered a form of brain training.
6. Help them learn new experiences. Children can be kept safe while helping them discover new settings and playing with other children. Having play dates helps them gain confidence.
If babies and young children experience loving and stable relationships, it helps them learn what to expect of others and the world. They are nurtured knowing they can depend on caregivers to look after them when they are upset, and they have confidence to explore, take control and do things for themselves. As babies and children grow, their feelings and relationships can become more complex too. Children are still learning how to regulate their feelings and can have outbursts or emotions adults aren’t used to seeing. Parents also have different ways of relating to people, so if you find your parenting style is making parenting your child harder, know that there is support available. An infant mental health clinician can help you and your child understand one another better. There are also some free resources and learning opportunities available too. Here are some useful links:
- Triple P Parenting Program
- Beyond Blue’s Healthy Families website
- Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health
- Raising Children Network
- Australian Association for Infant Mental Health