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What is infant mental health and why is it important?

This week marks infant mental health awareness week, but what exactly is infant mental health and why is it important? In honour of this week, I wanted to provide more information on this topic, what it means, why it is so vital in the early years of a babies life and how you can help promote good mental health in your infant.

Infant mental health refers to mental health in the first 3 years of life, also referred to as the first 1001 days; it is defined as an infants capacity to be able to form close relationships, recognise and explore emotions, as well as explore and learn about their environment.

Infant mental health is so important as it forms the blueprint for an individual’s mental health throughout the rest of their lifetime; how a baby first learns to interact with their primary caregiver affects their every interaction for the rest of their life. As adults we look to replicate and also find comfort in the type of relationship that we had with our primary caregiver and the familiar interactions we experienced in infancy; in other words, how we treat and respond to our babies in the early years teaches them what love looks like (or what they think love looks like). Those infants with responsive, nurturing caregivers who are in tune with them, grow to form secure attachment and have a much higher probability of seeking out and forming secure and healthy relationships in their adult life, not only that but they are more likely to have higher levels of wellbeing and resilience, and have a much healthier and happier relationship with themselves. However, those infants who do not have responsive, nurturing caregivers or those who have unpredictable or unstable caregivers do not form a secure attachment, and this can cause a wide array of issues and insecurities through their lives, which can range from mild to extreme (depending on their earliest experiences). Although it is possible to change your attachment style once you are an adult, it is a difficult and long journey. Supporting healthy mental health in infancy can set your child up for the rest of their life. But what does that entail exactly?

There is a concept known as "Serve and Return"; which means when we respond positively to and meet the needs of our baby, they develop trust and confidence in their caregiver and establish a secure attachment. When your baby cries and you go to them to comfort them, when you notice they are hungry and provide milk, when they are uncomfortable or unhappy and you pick them up cuddle them, when you smile and coo and chat to your baby; all of these interactions are serve and return interactions and the accumulation of all of these little interactions combine to support your baby's mental health.

Baby massage is a great practice providing amazing benefits to mental health and wellbeing (for baby and you!). The skin to skin contact, eye-contact, close proximity, smell and sound of your voice all help to strengthen the bond between parent and baby, releasing wonderful hormones such as oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. These hormones help to reduce stress and boost happiness and relaxation. Regularly practicing baby massage also helps encourage responsive parenting and interactions, which are the backbone of infant mental health.

But what about those times when you can't get to your baby straight away when they are crying, when you're not sure what they need and can't seem to be able to comfort them and stop them crying, or even when you get frustrated and lose your temper? Do not worry, perfectionism is not the goal, good enough is good enough! We are all human and no one can be fully responsive all of the time, especially when sleep deprivation, isolation, health, recovery and all other parenting issues are added on top. Focus on repairing and reconnecting when things go wrong; this actually teaches children that everyone makes mistakes and how to handle it when they do. Take the time to cuddle and connect with your baby, have skin to skin if you can, let them know you are sorry (they understand a lot more than we give them credit for). Furthermore, the act of modeling how to repair and reconnect after a disconnection is a great practice for baby to witness as they grow, they learn more from what they see then what they hear. Try not to focus on the times you've felt you've not quite hit the mark (or totally missed it), instead focus on spending some quality time with your little one and remind yourself of all the wonderful things you do daily for them.

This leads on nicely to my last point regarding infant mental health; our own mental health as parents is vital. Parental mental health is a key factor to establishing good infant mental health; in other words it is vital for parents to take care of themselves in order to be able to take good care of their babies. Self-care is essential. We've all heard the saying "put on your own oxygen mask first", the same applies with mental health, you need to ensure you take care of yourself if you're going to be able to take care of another. Learning and practicing healthy habits for your mental health, such as journaling, mindfulness, exercise, not only improve and support your mental wellbeing but they also support your child's wellbeing too, as well as teaching them healthy habits to last a lifetime.

So what are the key takeaways? Good infant mental health is vital for babies to grow into stable, healthy and secure adults, it lays the blueprint for their future mental wellbeing. We can easily support our baby's mental health with serve and return interactions and by responding caringly to them. Nobody is perfect, but we can reconnect and repair with our children, maintaining and strengthening our bond. And finally, remember that looking after yourself is helping to look after your baby too, so keep looking after yourself and try to maintain habits which are healthy for your mental wellbeing and overall health.

I originally came up with the idea to start The Happy Baby Hive, as I realised through personal experience how little support there can be for new mums and I wanted to be able to provide a supportive, inclusive space for new parents and also help promote mental wellbeing. That's why each of the courses and baby classes I provide all contain practices that support mental health and wellbeing for both babies and parents. It's also why I am a proud sponsor of Mind Hull and East Yorkshire Charity, providing a percentage of each course as a donation to the amazing charity and working with them to offer free courses to those most in need. Why not book onto a class today or get in touch to find out more?

The Happy Baby Hive provides support and wellbeing to new mums and parents in the Hull and East Riding area, currently offering baby massage classes and baby yoga classes.

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