Bessborough Child and Family Services recognise Infant Mental Health as crucial for the long term emotional and psychological wellbeing of children
Infant Mental Health:
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).
Infants develop positive mental health through consistent, responsive and loving care and attention from their caregivers.
We believe our personalities and functioning ability in a wide range of areas is directly related to our sense of safety and emotional experiences, and the quality of our caregiving relationships, in early childhood.
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
An ever-expanding evidence and literature base shows good infant mental health is synonymous with healthy development. Infants emotional, social, cognitive and physical development are interconnected and depend on each other, for example a child’s ability to learn new skills is dependent on their ability to interact with others and to manage their emotions effectively.
Parents and caregivers can be the source of their babies’ distress by being:
– Angry and frightening
What would babies tell
us if they had words?
- “From the moment I was born I was ready to connect with you”
- “Hold me, cuddle me and look into my eyes”
- “Respond kindly to me when I cry as my cry is my way of communicating with you”
- “Talk to me and pause so I can respond in my own way”
- “Play with me each day giving me your full attention and sharing enjoyment with me”
- “I like consistency and routines so I can learn to predict what we are going to do and how you are going to respond”
Top tips for parents and carers
Babies have powerful feelings and need you to help to manage them.
Babies cry because they need you to help them.
Try to think about how your baby is feeling. Ask yourself ‘what might my baby be trying to tell me, what might they be feeling?
Think about how you feel when you are hungry, tired, overwhelmed or scared.
Soothe and reassure your baby when they are upset by holding them close, cuddling, rocking, singing or talking softly to them as well as meeting their physical needs such as hunger or tiredness.
Remember to look out for ‘Serve and Return’ moments – ‘return the serve’ to your baby when they ‘serve’ to you.
Circle of Security International
Zero to Three
Irish Association for Infant Mental Health
Young Knocknaheeny Area Based Childhood Programme
Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University
Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families
World Association for Infant Mental Health
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