News • 14 Jun 2019

The importance of good infant mental health – the early years

The importance of good infant mental health – the early years

This week is Infant Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, a time to focus on the importance of the connection between caregivers and infants under 3 years old. We’ve spoken to experts within the Morayfield Health Hub to find out why the bond between infants and their caregivers is so important for future mental health.

Infant mental health (the early years) is the optimal social, emotional, and cognitive well-being of children ages 0 to 3, developed by secure and stable relationships with nurturing caregivers.

Good mental health begins in early childhood, when a baby has the opportunity to form a secure bond with their parent or caregiver.

This bond can support their ability to form healthy relationships throughout life.

Research now confirms a direct link between difficulties in infant parent-child bonding or attachment and psychiatric disorders in later life.

Viv Kissane, Founder of Peach Tree Perinatal Wellness, said: “Babies, being little people, have mental health needs too. They need to feel physically and emotionally close to their caregivers. They need to feel warm, nurtured, safe and protected. These positive experiences in the very early years influences the way they understand and develop relationships, and impacts on their social and emotional development.”

Mary Gregory, a proud mother of two daughters, Clinical Psychologist, and PhD candidate at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) aims to improve family connections through innovative platforms and by providing easily accessible research about the impact of relationships on brain development and functioning.

Over the past few years Mary has developed a free online program, called BetterBonds for caregivers and parents to help them learn how to build a secure and strong bond with their child.

Mary said: “There is a natural bonding process that occurs across species. In humans, this process has been found across cultures and has many important functions. These include ensuring the infant has access to food and providing safety for the infant. Attachment also assists with physical and emotional regulation and learning and language acquisition. A good connection between an infant and parent or caregiver is also related to better mental and physical health later in life.”

Mary has observed that children who have not had a secure attachment with a consistent caregiver are more likely to lack resilience and have fewer resources to cope with life stresses.

Mary states that children who do not have a protective adult in their life are more likely to experience traumatic events, and these factors combine to lead to more mental and physical health problems as well as more unhelpful coping behaviours (such as alcohol misuse) later in life.

According to Starting Smart by Theresa Hawley, Ph. D, often parents don’t know about the many small things they can do to foster their child’s healthy cognitive and emotional development, like talking to the child in infancy, reading to them from an early age, and helping them play simple games.

Peach Tree, a community based perinatal and infant mental health support service, provides playgroups and baby song time sessions to help parents who are struggling with mental health challenges to foster a connection with their child to positively impact the relationship.

Viv said: “Some simple strategies mothers can try to strengthen the bond with their child include: making eye contact during feeding or play time, wearing the baby in a sling to stay close, or reading or singing to baby. Involving fathers or partners as much as possible in practical day-to-day caring is also important, as it is good for baby to bond closely with more than one caregiver. Lastly, parents need to understand that sometimes feeling bonded with their baby can take time and practice, and that’s okay.”

‘Starting Smart’ also explores research demonstrating that parents suffering from untreated depression often fail to respond sensitively to their children’s cries, and that they are unlikely to provide the child with the kind of cognitive stimulation that promotes healthy brain development (Field, 1995).

“Other mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, can also dramatically affect a parent’s ability to interact appropriately with his or her child. Proper mental health treatment for these parents can make a real difference in their ability to raise a competent, well-adjusted child.” – Starting Smart, Theresa Hawley, Ph. D.

At the Open Minds Mental Health Hub at Morayfield, we work with parents experiencing mental illnesses, and children over five years old displaying adjustment and emotional difficulties.

Jae Eng, Centre Manager at the Open Minds Mental Health Hub, said: “Parenting is a tough gig for anyone. It requires a huge commitment and adjustment to a new reality. Even the most prepared or experienced of parents can struggle with this adjustment but it is important to know that is normal and expected and there is help is available.”

Daniel Shyhun, Dietician at Blue Care Live Well Centre, has said that the right food and drink provided to infants is also an important factor in their cognitive development.

Daniel said: “Children are consuming excessive amounts of discretionary or unhealthy foods and beverages. A study comparing the eating habits of very young children with the Australian guidelines found that more than 90 per cent of children aged 9 and 18 months are eating unhealthy or ‘sometime’ foods regularly, and older pre-schoolers are eating above what is recommended in the national guidelines. Sadly, a high intake of foods high in added sugars and fats, the unhealthy foods, displaces the nutrition they should be getting from the healthy or ‘everyday’ foods, which will adversely affect physical and cognitive development.”

Phoebe Harris, Occupational Therapist at the Blue Care Live Well Centre, works to support families to help their child’s development. This ranges from normal activities in their daily lives, to developing skills for managing emotions and behaviours.

Phoebe focuses on family-centred practice, ensuring that strategies are practical for families and easy to use within their daily lives.

Phoebe said: “I help families by providing strategies to support their child's development. At the Blue Care Live Well Centre we have a team of allied health professionals able to support people across the lifespan.”

If you’re a parent or caregiver with an infant under 3 years old, and you need some support, here are some useful resources: 

Parentline 1300 30 1300 https://www.parentline.com.au/ 

Playgroup Qld https://www.playgroupqld.com.au/ 

Triple P Parenting Program https://www.triplep-parenting.net.au/qld-uken/triple-p/

Raising Children Network https://raisingchildren.net.au/

Australian Association for Infant Mental Health https://www.aaimhi.org/

The Open Minds Mental Health Hub at Morayfield: https://openminds.org.au/morayfield

Peach Tree Perinatal: https://peachtree.org.au/

Better Bonds free online program: https://betterbonds.com.au/ 

Blue Care Live Well: https://www.bluecare.org.au/live-well-centre

University of Sunshine Coast Clinical Trials: https://www.usc.edu.au/trials

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