Family Links is proud to be a member of the 1001 days movement. The first 1001 days, from pregnancy until a child’s second birthday, are an age of opportunity. There is clear, compelling evidence that this is a significant and influential phase in development. What happens during this period influences every child’s future health, wellbeing, learning and earnings potential. It sets the groundwork for children’s developing emotional wellbeing, resilience and adaptability; the competencies they need to thrive. During this period, we can lay a foundation of health and wellbeing whose benefits last a lifetime – and carry into the next generation.
The idea of infant mental health may seem strange to many, and yet it is a way of describing the social and emotional wellbeing and development of children in the earliest years of life. Infant Mental Health Awareness week is taking place from 7th-12th June and the theme this year is, “2020 Vision: Seeing the world through babies' eyes”. What are babies experiencing, how is this affecting them and crucially, if we see the world through their eyes, what needs to change?
Even in the womb, a baby’s development is being influenced by how her mother is feeling, particularly her mother’s stress and anxiety levels. Once born, babies are ready to be social, and it is the positive, responsive interactions with parents and caregivers that helps their brains to develop in healthy ways. It is this responsiveness to both a baby’s pleasure and her need for comfort that will influence the attachments she develops: talking, laughing and playing, as well as rocking, cuddling and soothing. It is an amazing fact that babies are born with nearly all the nerve cells already present in their brains, but the ways in which these nerve cells connect and work together is influenced by their experiences, both in the womb and throughout their early years and later childhood – it is impossible to separate out nature and nurture.
Babies are full of powerful feelings, both physical and emotional, and they need their parents and other caregivers to help them to make sense of these feelings and to respond appropriately. These responsive interactions 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 are unable to 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.
Relationship-based antenatal programmes, such as Family Links Welcome to the World Programme, can help parents to begin to get to know their baby in the womb, to think of them as a little person with their own needs and feelings and to develop an understanding of how life will be once they arrive in the world. They can also help parents to understand their own emotional needs, how to support one another and obtain professional help if required.
Providing the care and responsiveness that infants need requires adults who are able to care for them without being overwhelmed themselves – not an easy task. Society needs to care for the caregivers. Local and national government need to prioritise support for parents in pregnancy and the early years, and to recognise the need for high quality child care. We need to help parents, and all those caring for young children, to realise just how important they are, not just for practical care, but for the emotional care of babies and children. And we need to give them the practical and emotional resources to enable them to do the best job they can.
Sarah Darton, CEO