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Infant Mental Health: The Critical Role of Relationships

June 15, 2022
5 minute read
Very few early years practitioners talk about the mental health of babies and toddlers: The concept of “infant mental health” is not widely known and understood. Yet, if you work with the youngest children, you may be influencing their mental health in profound ways, which can have lifelong consequences.

Infant mental health describes the social and emotional wellbeing and development of children in the earliest years of life (often until the age of two).

Every one of us, even the youngest baby, has mental health and wellbeing. Like all people, babies experience a range of emotions in response to what happens in their lives. If things aren’t right, their emotional wellbeing might be affected.

Although babies cannot recognise and describe it to us, they can feel happy and secure, or stressed and insecure. As they grow, their emotional wellbeing influences how they experience, manage and express emotions, and feel safe and secure to explore the world around them. 

Infant mental health matters, not just because we want our babies to feel content and secure today, but also because early emotional wellbeing and development shape our health and happiness for years to come.

The first 1001 days, from pregnancy to age two, is a period of uniquely rapid growth.  Babies’ brains are most ‘plastic’ or adaptable in this period as many millions of neural connections are made every second, and the architecture of the brain is developed.

During this time, babies brain development is influenced by their experiences and environments. These environments are largely shaped by their caregivers, through the way they interact with the baby, and how they expose or protect the baby from the world around them. If you are caring for a baby, you are influencing their growing brain, creating the foundations for later development. Experiences in the earliest years can have effects that last until old age.

“Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development.”
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (USA) i 

Although children’s futures are not determined by the age of two, wellbeing in the early years is strongly linked to later outcomes. By protecting and promoting babies’ emotional wellbeing and development, we have an opportunity to put children on a positive developmental trajectory, better able to take advantage of other opportunities that lie ahead.  For example, if babies feel safe and secure, they will be more ready to play and explore. If they can regulate their emotions and form healthy relationships, they will start school best equipped to be able to make friends and learn.

The relationships and interactions that babies have with their primary caregivers affect development in many different ways:

Caregivers’ responses shape how babies experience their emotions and how they learn to regulate and express these emotions. Early interactions also shape a baby’s developing sense of self, their understanding of who they are as a person. If someone responds sensitively to a baby when they cry, for example, the baby learns that they matter, that they can rely on their caregivers to help them when they are upset, and that difficult emotions can be managed.

To support healthy emotional and cognitive development, babies need what has been called “serve and return interactions” with their caregiver. This means that when the baby’s behaviour communicates something, this is met by an appropriate response from an adult. This might be looking at or naming what a baby points to; responding to their babbling with language or cuddling a baby when they cry.

All of this means that early years practitioners can play an important role in protecting and promoting infant mental health, both through the interactions you have with babies and toddlers every day, and through how you support parents to have sensitive, responsive interactions with their babies.

As managers and leaders, you can build practitioners’ knowledge and skills in infant mental health. You can also provide a reflective space to consider what babies’ and toddlers are communicating through their behaviours, and how adults are responding to these young children’s emotions and behaviour.

It is hard to be attuned to a young child’s needs if we are stressed ourselves and do not feel cared for, so when you support practitioners’ wellbeing, you can help them to keep babies’ needs in mind.

Sometimes baby rooms are an undervalued part of our early years provision. We definitely see a “baby blindspot” in a lot of Central Government policies relating to the early years. Understanding infant mental health helps us to understand that nurturing our youngest children is perhaps the most important job we can ever do.

The First 1001 Days Movement is a group of nearly 200 organisations working together to campaign about the importance of the emotional wellbeing of babies. Our mission is to drive change by inspiring, supporting and challenging national and local decision makers to value and invest in babies’ emotional wellbeing and development in the first 1001 days.

To find out more about the Movement, join our email list or become a member yourself visit 1001 days.org.uk

Useful links:

1001days.org.uk/resources  Reports, evidence briefs and infographics about infant mental health and early emotional and social development

www.annafreud.org/early-years/early-years-in-mind/ A free online network for early years practitioners providing guidance on supporting the mental health of babies, young children and their families.

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