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November 1 2016

Ever heard the words ‘mental health’ and immediately thought of mental illness? There is a huge stigma in our society about mental illness and people are loathe to talk about mental health as a result. But what if we thought about mental health in the same way we did physical health?

We all know that, in order to take care of our physical wellbeing, we need to eat healthy food, drink lots of water, exercise frequently, get enough sleep and manage our stress levels. But not everyone is as clear about what we need to do take care of our mental wellbeing (hint: lots of the same things apply). And when it comes to infant mental health, well - let’s just say I’ve been asked more than once: ‘do little babies really have mental health?’

The universal truth is that we all have mental health - just as we all have physical health. It might be great, it might be not so great, but it’s there either way, right from the moment we are born.

When we talk about infant mental health we’re really talking about their earliest relationships with the people who care for them and how supportive these are in terms of their social-emotional development. It’s very clear that the first few years - or 1000 days - of a baby’s life have an ongoing impact on their social-emotional wellbeing (and subsequently their overall mental health) for the rest of their life.

‘As babies, the way we are held, talked to and cared for teaches us about who we are and how we are valued. This profoundly shapes who we will become. The first days, months, and years of life are when the adults who care for us can truly promote strong, positive mental wellness. (Matthew Melmed)

Here’s an excerpt from a great piece by Matthew Melmed - Executive Director, ZERO TO THREE and international leader and advocate for infants and toddlers - called ‘Babies’ Mental Health Matters’ and published on the Huffington Post website earlier this year:

‘Let’s look at the world through the eyes of 3-month-old, Shayla, who is hungry and communicating this through her cries:

“When I let you know I’m hungry and you come with food, that tells me that you understand my needs and will respond to them. That makes me feel loved and important, and lets me know I can trust you and that the world is safe.

I love being cuddled while I eat. But I also love to explore - find out what’s going on around me. So I may pull away to see who else is around, or to find out where all the noise is coming from. I’ll also want to grab your fingers and your clothing, or just look up at you with an ear-to-ear smile.

When I coo at you, and you coo back, I learn about the power of connecting and communicating. Mealtime is about a lot more than just food for me.”

What Shayla and her parents are learning is like a dance - an intricate dance of development. She and her parents become attuned to each other’s cues. She learns to communicate what she needs, and they learn to read her cues and answer them. And in the process, a delightful rhythm emerges as they form the relationship that we call attachment. What they are really building is a strong foundation for Shayla’s social and emotional development - a positive beginning for her mental health. It is on this foundation of mental health that all of Shayla’s future learning and relationships will be built.’

He goes on to say, ‘... mental health is not something that pertains only to adults or older children. Babies have “mental health” - they are deeply feeling beings who are developing a sense of who they are, their value and worth, from day one. This process begins with the dance that takes place during everyday moments, like feeding, which are actually quite extraordinary when you look at them through the eyes of a young child.’

There are a variety of definitions of infant mental health depending on where you look and who’s giving it, including how old an infant is (some say 0-3 years, some say 0-4 years) but here’s a boiled down, easy-to-understand one that we can all ‘get’:

Infant Mental Health is ‘the optimal social, emotional, and cognitive well-being of children ages 0 to 3 and developed by secure and stable relationships with nurturing caregivers’. (Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health®)

When we look at it like this it becomes clear how important we, as the key adults in a child’s life, are in creating their optimal mental health and wellbeing. Back to Matthew Melmed for the last word and some valuable tips on promoting a baby’s mental health:

°      ‘Engage in loving, responsive, positive interactions. Early experiences matter - a lot. Research shows that parents’ attunement to their babies’ cues, and sensitive response shapes the architecture of babies’ brains and has long-term impacts on academic and social competence. Babies who experience sensitive, responsive caregiving are more likely to develop stronger problem-solving and critical thinking skills, to become effective communicators, and to learn to understand and manage feelings.

°      Seek to understand the meaning behind young children’s behaviour. All behaviour has meaning. The better we understand what drives young children’s behaviour, the better we are able to meet their needs. Picture a parent who has learned that her baby is slow-to-warm-up in new situations; so she introduces him to new people from the safety of her arms to give him time to feel comfortable before expecting him to engage. Or a parent who tunes in to her toddler’s hard time with transitions, so she alerts him when a change is going to happen, and helps him find a way to cope, perhaps by bringing a special book to look at in the car when heading to childcare. Understanding the root cause enables us to respond in an effective way that teaches good coping skills and reduces shaming and making kids feel they are “bad”-which is detrimental to their mental health.

°      Recognize that challenges and stress are a natural and important part of a baby’s growth. The ability to manage stress and muscle through challenges builds self-esteem and self-confidence. Again, let’s picture a toddler playing with a sorting toy. You might see her work on fitting shapes in the holes, turning them, pushing them, until she finds the matches. Making mistakes, also known as failure, is a critical part of learning, as it leads to problem-solving and the building of new knowledge and skills. Experience with managing everyday stressors also helps young children learn to cope with frustration and disappointment - like not getting ice cream before dinner, or having to leave the playground before they are ready - gives young children the tools necessary for getting along with others, and ultimately succeeding in school, work, and life. And let’s not forget the feeling of pride and accomplishment when the block falls through the correct hole.

°      The good news is that nurturing strong mental health in young children is not a specific undertaking in which parents need to engage - as if it were a ‘job’ or task. It is how parents are with their babies that matters - providing comfort when fussy; responding to their child’s efforts to communicate first by facial expressions, sounds and gestures, and later words; engaging them in joyful play and exploration by following their interests and lead; coaching and supporting them to persist with challenges; providing appropriate limits to help children learn to manage when they can’t have everything they want; and most of all delighting in the joy of young children’s daily discoveries, and in the power of the bond they are building together. This kind of responsive care builds babies’ trust and sense of security, and makes them feel adored and loved - the key ingredients for positive mental health.’ (excerpt from ‘Babies’ Mental Health Matters’ published on the Huffington Post website: May 2016)

Growing In Connection is For Life’s flagship, 6-session course that talks about all things infant mental health. Why not book yourself on this course and learn more about how you can nurture and protect our youngest citizens mental health and wellbeing for their whole lifetime. Ask your nearest PORSE office for details.