Empowering parents to improve infant mental health
Infant mental health is a concept that may sound unfamiliar to many people. As a parent and former health visitor, I’ve known and worked with hundreds of wonderful new and expectant parents, all of whom want the best for their children. The words “mental health” are often met with the understandable, yet false, perception that this is an issue to worry about when children are older, and then only in the context of “ill” health.
In actuality, and as many practitioners will know, good mental health is something that can be nurtured from the womb right through adolescence and into adulthood. The first ever Infant Mental Health Awareness week was held in June this year, with the focus on “building babies’ minds”. Something that many parents may not be aware of is that babies are born with nearly all their nerve cells already present in their brains, but the ways in which these nerve cells connect and work together is easily influenced by their experiences, both in the womb and throughout their early years and later childhood.
As the Director of Programmes for Family Links, I now deliver training to practitioners who work with all kinds of parents, to help them support parents in fostering good mental health in themselves and their children. One of the key things I talk about in my work is just how important parents are in the development of their baby’s mind, and that there is support and advice to help them. A practitioner’s role in empowering parents to nurture their baby’s mental health can be absolutely vital.
But let’s start at the beginning. What is mental health?
Mental health is a continuum that stretches from mental wellbeing at one end to mental illness at the other, and we can all be at different places along that continuum at different stages in our lives. There is often a perception that mental illness is a purely genetically determined issue. While it’s certainly true that there will be medical reasons behind mental illness, parenting has a very significant role in brain development and how genes are expressed.
Practitioners can help parents to nurture their baby’s mental wellbeing by encouraging them to get to know their baby in the womb, to begin thinking of them as a little person with their own needs and feelings. For example, practitioners can explain to parents that babies can hear them from about 26 weeks of pregnancy, and therefore encourage them to talk and sing to their babies, and help them understand why shouting or violence at home is so detrimental to babies’ development.
One of the most important factors in infant mental health is how parents manage their own mental health. Practitioners can be key to identifying when a parent is anxious or stressed, and letting them know that it’s normal to have some anxieties but it’s a positive thing to seek help if they need it. Even when a baby is in the womb, the parent’s emotional responses are having an impact on the development of the baby, and potentially their future mental health and wellbeing. Low level anxiety is common amongst expectant mothers, and we also know that high levels of anxiety in pregnancy are detrimental to infant development. If a mother is feeling very anxious, it’s important that they ask for help from their GP, midwife or health visitor. Family Links’ Welcome to the World antenatal programme also prepares expectant parents for challenges both mothers and fathers may encounter and supports and encourages the development of an understanding of the baby’s physical and emotional needs, in the womb and after delivery.
Modelling good mental wellbeing and looking after our mental health as parents goes hand-in-hand with helping babies to develop a sense of security and healthy self-esteem once they are born. Parents can help develop this by tuning into their baby, and practitioners can support them by equipping mums and dads with strategies to achieve this connection. Some of these strategies could include talking and playing with the baby, gentle massage or stroking, singing, laughing and smiling, taking pleasure and delight in them so they develop the sense that they’re special and lovable, and that the adults in their lives are dependable. The idea of “turn taking”, when parents reflect back their baby’s sounds and expressions, is crucial, as is an understanding that babies need to take a break sometimes and will turn away when they need to. This is not because they are rejecting their parents’ attempts to engage but because they are easily over stimulated and need rest.
Babies are born ready to be social, and positive interactions with parents and care givers are helping their brains to develop in healthy ways. Parents also need to help babies when they’re distressed by cuddling, rocking, singing and soothing. These actions help babies to form the pathways in the brain that enable them to calm themselves as they get older, so they’ll be able to manage stress and challenges more easily in later life. Babies brains have not yet developed to a point where they could deliberately annoy their parents; their cries or signs of distress are their ways of communicating that something’s not right and they need adult help to enable them to settle.
All this early interaction is like an “emotional immunisation” that will help protect children as they grow and are exposed to things that might knock them or create stress. Just like an immunisation against physical illness, so we can also provide that resilience against emotional stressors. And practitioners can be key to giving parents these strategies and the confidence to carry them out.
For me, the cornerstone supporting all this is helping parents to realise just how important they are, not just for practical care, but for emotional care of babies and children. We need to encourage parents to realise they’re special, and that includes fathers who sometimes feel their role is just to support the mother – their relationship with their baby is special in its own right. And practitioners are in a unique position to support, nurture and empower parents to reach for help if they need it, and develop good mental health in their children.