Building Back Better starts with Babies’ Mental Health

Building Back Better starts with Babies’ Mental Health

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Mental Health Week (9-16 October) is a great time to highlight how we can build back better with babies when it comes to the mental health of our future teenagers, families and communities.

A baby or infant’s mental health describes the social and emotional wellbeing and development of children in the earliest years of life. It reflects whether children have the secure, responsive relationships that they need to thrive.

Mental health problems in childhood can have a substantial impact on wellbeing. In addition, there is strong evidence that mental disorders in childhood and adolescence predict mental illness in adulthood. [i]

According to the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child, good early relationships can provide a ‘buffer’ that helps to protect babies and toddlers from other adversities in their lives. Babies who suffer from adversity without sensitive, nurturing relationships are more likely to experience toxic stress which can have pervasive impacts on many aspects of child development.

Author and Academic Jeree Pawl says that babies develop a sense of security through being noted, noticed, spoken to over distance, rescued, protected, appreciated in other words, by being held consistently in someone’s mind. It is this sense of security that helps to build the foundations for strong mental health for life.

Most parents want to do the best for their babies but some live in situations that make this harder. Stress factors such as mental illness, domestic abuse, poverty and unresolved trauma can make it harder for parents to protect, support and promote young children’s healthy development.

Well-being in the early years is strongly linked to later outcomes. By protecting and promoting babies’ emotional wellbeing and development – improving infant mental health and strengthening parent-infant relationships – we have an opportunity to put babies and children on a positive mental health trajectory.

It is important that we treat babies and young children’s mental health problems within the context of their families, homes, and communities. The emotional well-being of babies and young children is directly tied to the functioning of their caregivers and families. Reducing the stressors affecting babies and children requires addressing the stresses on their families. That is where parenting support organisations like Tweddle are crucial.

For a baby, toddler or young child, having good mental health means being able to learn, play, love, sleep and form close bonds and secure attachment relationships with family. There are a number of factors that can interfere with the development of good mental health in the first 1000 days. The Raising Children Network reports that there are many different circumstances that can impact a baby’s mental health and be stressful for a parent, baby or toddler. They include;

  • Something traumatic happening (eg. a hurtful, shocking or painful event).
  • Being sick or having a disability.
  • Being born very early (prematurity).
  • Having a slower or different pattern of development.
  • Losing something important (eg. someone close, a home to live in).
  • Parental mental health difficulties (eg. post-natal depression).

One barrier to mental health care for young children is “the pervasive, but mistaken, impression that young children do not develop mental health problems and are immune to the effects of early adversity and trauma because they are inherently resilient and ‘grow out of behavioural problems and emotional difficulties,” said researchers Joy D. Osofsky, PhD, of Louisiana State University, and Alicia F. Lieberman, PhD, of the University of California.

So how do we strengthen the mental health of our future teenagers, the workforce and those around us and Build Back Better with Babies? Tweddle recommends the following initiatives;
  • Increase public awareness of the distinction between infant mental health and that of older children.
  • Encourage public understanding and acceptance of how genetics and environments can impact the lifelong mental health of babies and toddlers.
  • Expand public knowledge of the key measures that can be taken by parents, families and the community to nurture and shape the mental health of babies and toddlers.
  • Encourage all mums and dads to take up screening for mental health issues in the first 1000 days of their child’s life.
  • Provide specialist interventions to those who need it. In particular, there is no ‘wrong door’ for perinatal mental health and early parenting support services. Providing the right support at the right time is critical in the lives of babies and toddlers as the brain is developing at a rapid rate and attachment disorders need early intervention and the earliest possible time to mitigate the potential lifelong impacts

Edward Tronick said that “Infants make meaning about themselves and their relation to the world of people and things,” and when that “meaning-making” goes wrong, it can lead to the development of mental health problems. “Some infants may come to make meaning of themselves as helpless and hopeless, and they may become apathetic, depressed and withdrawn.

Others seem to feel threatened by the world and may become hyper-vigilant and anxious.”  Apparent sadness, anger, withdrawal and disengagement can occur “when infants have difficulty gaining meaning in the context of relationships.”

Childhood presents the greatest opportunity for intervention. Investing in prevention and early intervention gives babies and children the best opportunity for good mental health and wellbeing for life.

You can help Tweddle build the lifelong mental health of babies and toddlers with a donation to the Tweddle Foundation.

 

  1. (WHO 2014b; Lahey 2015; NMHC 2019a).

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