Infant Mental Health Awareness Week Australia runs from June 7-12 this year – a time to focus on the importance of babies’ emotional wellbeing and the connections with their parents and caregivers. The 2020 theme is “seeing the world through babies’ eyes”. Our staff at Hatch Private Maternity take this opportunity to help raise awareness about the importance of early childhood development.
Why infant mental health is so important
More and more research indicates the first two years of a child’s life is a critical time for the development of a person’s emotional, physical, cognitive, social and mental health. Some studies suggest it is the first five years. There are two pertinent facts coming from the research: Firstly, infants do have mental health and secondly, that this mental health needs nurturing.
The aim of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week is to help give infants, young children, and their families the best possible start in the important, early years of life. This is done by improving professional and community understanding about the role of mental health.
Protecting and promoting infant health is particularly important during this difficult time when the COVID-19 pandemic crisis on families is putting some babies’ emotional wellbeing at risk and limiting the ability of vital services to support them.
Mental health starts in the womb
Nurturing 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. Remarkably, research has indicated that the brain develops more in the first five years of a person’s life than at any other time.
The research is complex, however, put simply we can look at it in two ways:
- If a person’s first years of life consist of negative factors like abuse, neglect or lack of resources, it’s likely that baby’s developing neuronal pathways will be associated with survival.
- If children feel safe, calm and protected, neuronal pathways form which are essential to future learning and growth.
Bonds between infants and caregivers is crucial
The bond between infants and their caregivers is so important for future mental health.
- Constantly talk with your child. From the time they are born, talk calmly and positively to them. You are their role model, and they will model their expressions from you, so set a good example from their start.
- Create a healthy, safe environment. Your child is completely dependent on you for feeding them so ensure they have healthy, nutritious meal options. Don’t smoke around your child and avoid alcohol when pregnant or breastfeeding. Babies and children are also affected by stressful events, even if they don’t understand them. They also watch how their parents and caregivers react to stress and learn from that modelled behaviour. If it is negative, they may develop emotional, behavioural or developmental problems. Learn more about positively managing stress for yourself and your children by speaking to a health professional. View these links at the Better Health Channel and Raising Children Network for useful articles on parenting and adult stress management.
- Ensure your child feels heard and listened to. Responsive caregiving is vital. Whether a baby is crying, babbling or laughing, always engage with baby, make eye contact and demonstrate you are fully attentive to their needs. Letting your baby cry for extended periods without anyone appearing to notice prolongs stress and can have long-term effects.
- Help them explore, play and learn. Joy, laughter and having fun are important to their learning. Though a baby might not be able to speak yet, you can play games with them like peek-a-boo, singing songs and nursery rhymes and count their fingers and toes. These experiences enhance bonds with your child and are also considered a form of brain training.
- Expose them to new settings and people. While it is important children feel safe, it doesn’t mean holding them back from new learning experiences. Have play-dates with other children or let them crawl around a park or explore new surroundings (whilst supervising) helps build their confidence to cope with new experiences as they get older, such as starting kindergarten or going to school.
When babies and young children experience loving and stable relationships it helps them learn what to expect of others and the world. They learn they can take control and do things for themselves, that they are worthy of being cared for, and that they can depend on caregivers to look after them when upset.
What to remember as they grow
Babies and young children grow and change very quickly, and as they do their feelings and relationships can become more complex. Caregivers need to help children manage “their big feelings” when they arise. The child is still learning to manage and regulate their own feelings and trying to understand their world. Just as every child has their own style of interacting with others and relating to their environment, each caregiver has their own personal style too. If the two have different approaches, it can make parenting harder. If this happens in your family, an infant mental health clinician can help you and your child understand one another better. There are also some useful links and learning opportunities listed below, many of them offered for free in Queensland.
Useful websites/resources for further information and support:
- Beyond Blue’s Healthy Families website
- Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health
- Triple P Parenting Program
- Raising Children Network
- Australian Association for Infant Mental Health