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.
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