Seeing the world through babies’ eyes

Seeing the world through babies’ eyes

This week (7- 12 June) is Infant Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is ‘20:20 vision: Seeing the world through babies’ eyes’. The Week is led by the Parent-Infant Foundation (PIF) and the First 1001 Days Movement, a collaboration of relevant organisations with the PIF as secretariat, which is being launched during the week.

What is infant mental health? It is the emotional wellbeing of babies. The Movement’s vision is that ‘every baby has loving and nurturing relationships in a society that values emotional wellbeing and development in the first 1001 days, from pregnancy, as the critical foundation for a healthy and fulfilling life.’

What babies want is what they need and these needs are basic. As obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read  wrote in the mid 20th century:  

“The newborn has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence. Breastfeeding satisfies all three.”

They do also need to receive attention from other humans. If their needs are usually met, babies can form secure relationships (attachment) with their caregivers. Usually, there is one primary caregiver, most commonly the mother. Attachment theory was developed by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s. An attachment figure who cares responsively for the infant provides a secure base. It is believed that behaviours by the infant to stay close when separated, like screaming and clinging, have been reinforced by natural selection (see What is attachment theory).

Babies are vulnerable – as Donald Winnicott, paediatrician and psychoanalyst, among his other insightful quotes, stated:

‘There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone’.

However, infants are not passive as they communicate by giving cues to their needs, such as the rooting reflex when hungry. If their needs are not responded to quickly, they become upset. Dr. Edward Tronick’s ‘still face’ experiments in the 1970s showed the importance of human connection for an infant. If the parent’s face is still and unresponsive to her baby, the baby looks confused and then becomes distressed. The experiments also showed that ruptures in a relationship like this are easily repaired. Parents do not need to respond perfectly.

However, when there is repeatedly no response to a baby’s distress, as in sleep training where the baby is left alone and expected to adapt, it was found that the babies’ behaviour changed so that by the third night they were no longer crying but their cortisol (stress hormone) levels were still high so there was a mismatch between behaviour and physiology; instead of learning to self-soothe it seems as though they were giving up so in despair. 

The significance of the care babies receive is that their experiences, starting before birth, influence the neural connections that are formed in the developing brain – the ‘wiring’. A parent who is emotionally not really available to the baby (so not attuned to their needs) will find it difficult either to respond or to respond appropriately, providing an unintentional ‘still face’ or angry face. The parents could be ill, depressed, addicted, suffering domestic abuse, desperately worried about their financial situation, overloaded with responsibilities………It is therefore crucial for a society to care for parents so that they can be emotionally available to their children.

Feeding is a crucial part of nurturing care and breastfeeding facilitates the process.There is considerable evidence that not being breastfed is linked to poorer physical health in infants (Lancet, 2016). Breastfeeding provides personalised nutrition. Antibodies and other components in breastmilk reduce the chance and severity of infections. Oligosaccharides in breastmilk feed and thus favour beneficial bacteria in the infant’s gut and this helps the development of a healthy immune system. It is difficult to allow for confounding factors in studies on breastfeeding but reviews show it is linked with better cognitive performance, which is likely to be due to the fatty acids in breastmilk. But what about any impact on emotional development? There are studies which suggest that being breastfed is associated with paying more attention to positive emotions in others.  Breastmilk contains the calming hormone oxytocin, which stimulates social interactions, and which is further released through touch and suckling, so the moods of both mother and baby benefit. Several studies indicate that mothers who are breastfeeding tend to touch their babies more, are more responsive and tend to gaze at them more, all of which will help the infant’s emotional wellbeing. The Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative leaflet, Building a Happy Baby, provides practical suggestions for parents to support their baby’s brain development and addresses myths and realities. 

Jones found that breastfeeding helps to protect infants from the harmful effects of maternal depression

Mothers who stop breastfeeding before they want to are at greater risk of postnatal depression (Borra et al 2014) so mothers need easy access to breastfeeding support to help them continue, thereby benefitting their babies physically and emotionally. Sadly, there are barriers to breastfeeding throughout society, as outlined in the WBTi UK report.

Parents and carers urgently need more support, especially during the stresses and isolation of lockdown and the COVID19 pandemic. We call on government to make infants and their families a high priority during the pandemic and in our plans to rebuild a stronger society.

Photo used with permission

Patricia Wise is an NCT breastfeeding Counsellor and a member of the WBTi UK Steering Group

Shocking gaps in emergency preparedness for Europe’s babies

Shocking gaps in emergency preparedness for Europe’s babies

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how important it is for countries to protect their citizens from illness.

Yet a new WBTi regional report shows gaps in support for families across Europe, with the poorest overall scores in national leadership and, shockingly, emergency preparedness, where the UK scored 0/10. This pandemic is an emergency for infants and young children and only North Macedonia was found to have an adequate strategy.

Babies who are breastfed have better health and resistance to infection, and most mothers want to breastfeed. Yet many European mothers stop or reduce breastfeeding in the early weeks and months, and bottle feeding is prevalent, due to inadequate support from health systems and society.

Launched today, the first European report on infant and young child feeding policies and practices, Are our babies off to a healthy start?, compares 18 countries and identifies the considerable improvements they need to make in supporting mothers who want to breastfeed. A summary report has been published today in the International Breastfeeding Journal .

The full report can be downloaded from the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative global website.    

The new report, Are our babies off to a healthy start?, compares the  implementation of WHO’s Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding across 18 European countries. The comparisons show clearly that inadequate support and protection for breastfeeding mothers is a Europe-wide problem. The health of babies, mothers and whole populations  lose out as a result. However, countries do differ considerably. Turkey rates highest overall; the five countries with the lowest scores belong to the European Union. 

     ‘Nutrition is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals related to health, education, sustainable development, reduction of inequalities and more.’

Joao Breda, Head, WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases

The scope of the assessment is wide-ranging, with ten policy and programme indicators, including national leadership, Baby Friendly hospital and community practices, marketing controls on breastmilk substitutes, health professional training, emergency preparedness and monitoring. There are also five feeding practices indicators, such as exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, a WHO recommendation. 

The original assessments were all carried out using the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi), a tool first developed in 2004 by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) but only launched in Europe in 2015. It requires collaboration with relevant organisations within a country on assessment scores, gaps identified and recommendations for improvements. The Report highlights good practice, enabling countries to learn from one another.

     ˝Success …rests first and foremost on achieving political commitment at the highest level and assembling the indispensable human and financial resources.’

WHO Global Strategy 2003

If governments, other policymakers, hospitals and community services, public health departments, institutions that train health professionals, and others, adopt the report recommendations, it will enable more mothers to initiate and continue breastfeeding, strengthening the health of the population for the future.

The WBTi European Working Group, led by Dr. Irena Zakarija-Grkovic of Croatia, produced the Report and comprises coordinators from European countries which have carried out a WBTi assessment. The production of the report was supported by the Croatian Ministry of Health and UNICEF Croatia.

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UK media contact: wbti@ukbreastfeeding.org