"The positive rise in Mental Health Awareness seems to be centralised on older children and adults, as if we are missing the link that infants grow up to be this demographic"
The theme for this year’s Infant Mental Health Awareness week (IMHAW) is ‘Including infants in
children and young people’s mental health’. Children and young people’s mental health should refer to the mental health of all children from 0-18 but too often it is focussed on older children.
50% of those with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14 and among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70%. Many charities are truly enriching children’s lives with the support and training service but it leaves me asking the difficult question. How did we get here?
The truth is, there are many variables and social influences that can lay claim to contributing, but unsurprisingly the area I would like to focus on, is infant connection.
The 1001 days cross party manifesto identifies and supports the fact that the period of conception to 2 years is not only when a child’s brain develops the fastest, but a crucial time for forming attachments and strong bonds. The NSPCC estimate that around 26% percent of babies in the UK (almost 200,00) live in complex family situations of heightened risk such as mental illness or domestic violence and that the best time to turn this around is during the 1001 critical days. Despite this, where there has been investment in mental health for school age children, there have been significant cuts in both funding and services for babies and young children.
Parent-Infant relationships are vitally important. Supporting parents to respond to their babies’ needs sensitively in turn supports the development of the child on an emotional, social and cognitive level. Supporting children’s mental health is invaluable, but perhaps it is a treatment where we should be focusing on a preventative?
A million connections are made in the brain every second in the first 3 years of life. Early experiences shape the developing brain and lay the foundations for sound mental health.
These connections can be formed from the simplest activities; eye-contact, vocalisation, nurturing touch, listening and responding to babies’ needs. Connection. You don’t need all the flashing lights and sensory over stimulation. You are their environment. These connections will form through responsive parenting.
The positive rise in Mental Health Awareness seems to be centralised on older children and adults, as if we are missing the link that infants grow up to be this demographic. There has been so much positive focus on parents, Mothers in particular, but, and this may not be a popular sentence, I have recently noticed a trend in defending failing to meet the needs of infants in the name of maternal mental health. I truly believe there is room to accommodate both respectfully.
Initiatives such as holistic sleep support have shown us this and simple practices such as baby-wearing and baby massage have positive mental health benefits for both parent and baby. We do not need to sacrifice one for the other and there is a wealth of support out there for anybody that feels that they are struggling.
Now I’m not saying it’s easy, in Bruce Parry M.D, PH.D’s book Born for Love, he states that we have spent the past 150,000 years living in multi-generational family groups, the ratio of mature individuals to young children was around 4:1. That's 4 mature individuals to one child, all contributing to education, socialisation, nurture, discipline, communication and connection. All of that support, many caregivers for the child, and this is what our brains expect. Is it a wonder we struggle?
We now have educational ratios of 1:30, the average household size is 3 or fewer, childcare ratios are 1:5. Just one twentieth of the relational richness of a “natural hunter gatherer setting.
How does this change our connections to one another? How does this effect our empathy, love and understanding? How does this impact our own mental health, trying to function with sub-optimal support networks? And how does it impact on our Infants mental health?
So what can we do? We need to raise awareness of the importance of family support services and fight cuts to bond building and cue-based programmes such as Infant Massage in our local family centres. We know beyond doubt that children who have good early relationships are better able to regulate their emotions in later life and have better relationships themselves.
Protest, shout about it, write to your MPs. Make change happen. We need to encourage every expectant family and their healthcare providers to understand the importance of responsive parenting, the benefits of keeping babies close and nurturing touch.
We need to invest on a national, if not global, scale
We need to offer support networks and recreate our village.
We need to campaign that Children’s Mental Health begins with infant Mental Health.