It’s the final day of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week today. To end the week, our Policy & Research Officer, Amy, and our Grants & Relationships Officer, Jemma, share with you some key facts they have learned about Infant Mental Health from their completion of the University of Warwick’s Infant Mental Health Online training.
Attachment is the emotional connection between the baby and parent/caregiver.
This course explained exactly what attachment really is and its importance. Attachment is a bio-behavioral mechanism that is introduced by feeling anxious. It is there to reduce stress and to establish a sense of security. At Cattanach, we discuss attachment all the time with organisations; this is something we like our grantees to focus on when working with children and their families.
Parental responsive behaviour in communication has a positive effect on child speech and language development.
From this course, we learned about the importance of parental contingent responsiveness. This is when a parent is attuned to their baby’s needs and is responding back and forth. Infants need interactions that are matched closely with their own states. Examples of this are mirroring facial expressions, smiling when your baby smiles, or making a sad face when your baby looks sad.
Still face experiment
Infants need support to be able to recognise what they are feeling and to identify different emotions.
Infants require an appropriate response from their caregiver. To best support a baby, the caregiver should up-regulate the infant's emotional state when they are excited and joyful, and down-regulate their emotional stress by reassuring and comforting them. A child who is experiencing high emotional arousal (unsettled or crying) can result in physiological and behavioural changes.
Dr Alan Schore explaining the importance of the primary caregiver helping to regulate emotions and stress
Systemic change is key to improving infant mental health
Although something regularly stressed by Cattanach, learning with Warwick University’s IMHOL course provided the theory behind this. This included Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, demonstrating the layers of societal influence beyond the family unit that can affect an infant’s mental health.
Infants are not born with a sense of self-awareness or agency; this develops over time.
Infants are not born knowing about the ways they can influence their environment. This happens over time and is influenced by the responses caregivers have to infants’ behaviour. The stages of developing agency are demonstrated by Peter Fonagy’s theorisation of self-agency with infants
Peter Fonagy: How Does One Develop Sense of Self?
Mirror Neuron System
Humans have a mirror neuron system associated with empathy.
The early years are an important part of the development of this system. Babies are innately emotionally programmed for social interaction with their caregivers, facilitated by their mirror neuron system. Positive interactions with caregivers helps to develop this system.
Trauma is often intergenerational, and so approaches to resolving trauma often need to be inter-generational as well.
This was explained on the IMHOL course through the concept of Ghosts in the Nursery, where a caregiver's subconscious responses to an infant might be influenced negatively by their own childhood experiences and the feelings the memories evoke.
Understanding Ghosts In The Nursery