For infants and children, early relationships matter and play a significant role in their ongoing mental health and wellbeing. Infant Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 7-13 June, and the goal of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH) this year is to encourage everyone working in children and young people’s mental health policies, strategies, and services to think about and include babies. Too often mental health is focussed on older children, says the AAIMH, and there seems to be a “baby blind spot”.
The COVID-19 pandemic too has placed even more importance on infancy mental health with families in Australia and world-wide experiencing personal hardships, uncertainty, and anxiety. Here is some information for parents and carers and ways to encourage positive mental health and wellbeing from infancy.
When does mental health start?
An infant’s mental health begins during pregnancy and immediately from birth. This time is crucial for the development of emotional, physical, cognitive, social, and mental health. Some studies suggest it is the first five years, when the brain develops more than any other time in a person’s life.
While the research is complex – put simply: If a person’s first years of life consist of abuse, neglect, or lack or resources the baby’s developing neuronal pathways are likely associated with survival. If babies and children feel safe, calm and protected, then neuronal pathways that are linked to future learning and growth are formed.
What can caregivers do to help?
The bond between infants and caregivers is important for mental health, along with providing them with a safe and nurturing environment.
- Talk to your baby from birth. From the second they are born, talk calmly and positively to them. Explain what is going on and let them hear your voice, which provides them with comfort and security, especially when they are still unable to see clearly. With you as their role model, they model their expressions from you, so it is helpful to set a good example.
- Ensure they feel heard. It is vital to be responsive to your child, starting from birth. If they are crying, babbling, or laughing, engage with them and respond to them, making eye contact, and showing you are fully attentive to what they need. If a baby cries for a long time with no one noticing or appearing, it can prolong their stress and lead to long-term effects.
- Provide a safe, nurturing environment. Providing baby with warm, nutritious meals and clean clothing, appropriate for the weather are just two ways baby is completely dependent on you. They need a warm bed, lots of love, and attention. They also model your behaviour, so be mindful of how you react to stress as if it is negative, it can develop emotional, behavioural, or developmental problems in your child. Avoid smoking and drinking around baby and if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Help them learn and explore. Having fun is important for learning. Playing peek-a-boo or singing nursery rhymes, and counting their fingers and toes are great for bonding and brain training.
- Introduce them to new experiences. Children need to feel safe, and you can do this while supervising and introducing them to new experiences such as play dates and exploring their surroundings in a park. This helps them gain confidence.
Loving and stable relationships help babies and young children learn what to expect of others and the world, and builds their confidence knowing they are worthy of being cared for.
As children grow, caregivers can help them manage their “big feelings” when they arise. It is important to note children are still learning to regulate their feelings and understand their world. An infant mental health clinician can help if you and your child are having difficulties.
It is important as a parent to look after your mental health too. Please see your GP if you are having issues with your mood, energy levels, or your baby is unsettled. There is support you can access. There are also some useful links for further reading below.
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