The focus for Infant Mental Health Awareness Week this year is remembering infants when thinking about child and adolescent mental health. It is crucial that mental health policies, strategies and services protect and promote the mental health of our youngest and most vulnerable children. Infant mental health matters, not just because we want our babies to feel content and secure, but because the emotional health and relationships of infants during the first years of life lay the foundations for their later health and wellbeing.
Infant mental health is a concept that will be unfamiliar to many people. The idea of mental health is often met with the understandable, yet false, perception that this is an issue to worry about only when children grow older, and then only in the context of “ill” health. In reality, the foundations for good mental health can be nurtured from the womb, right through adolescence and into adulthood.
Babies are born with the majority of neurons or nerve cells already present in their brains (more than 80 billion of them!) but the ways in which these nerve cells connect and work together is influenced by relationships and experiences, both in the womb and throughout their early years. Genes are not destiny; early experiences can determine how genes are turned on and off. Stable and supportive relationships, language-rich environments, and mutually responsive, ‘serve and return’ interactions with adults promote healthy brain connections in babies and the development of the all-important regulatory systems.
Babies are full of powerful feelings and need responsive adults not only to empathise with them, but to help them make sense of and ‘contain’ these feelings. Babies who are well supported to bring these intense feelings back to a comfortable level will, in time, begin to learn to do this for themselves. An infant who receives warmth, love and affection from a small number of consistent carers, and who develops secure attachments will also develop a view of themselves as lovable and will see the world as a safe place to be.
Inevitably, one of the most important factors in infant mental health is the mental and emotional health of parents and carers. Supporting parents with their own mental health and building the core capabilities of all the adults in children’s lives is essential, not only to their own success as parents and carers, but also for the development of the same capabilities of the children in their care. The early years’ workforce is often overlooked when thinking about infant mental health, but their input into the lives of our youngest and most vulnerable children is crucial. We need to support and encourage parents to realise just how special they are, and provide the care and services they need to enable them to enjoy positive relationships with their infants and children.
The Family Links Welcome to the World Programme is designed to help parents develop an understanding of their infant, their needs and development, as well as to recognise their own needs and sources of support. This short film highlights the impact of the programme for parents who have multiple challenges in their lives.
Infancy is a time of both great opportunity and considerable risk; for the sake of infants, parents and society as a whole we must include infants in child and adolescent mental health and intervene early to nurture the emotional and mental health of infants and their parents.
Sarah Darton, CEO