Infant Mental Health: what is it, why is it important and what can you do as parent or carer to give your child the best start in life?
On its website (http://www.aaimhi.org) the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc explains which aspects play a role in Infant Mental Health. We all know that those early years are very important for bonding and physically growing, but did you know that from the very beginning, meaning already starting during pregnancy, the surroundings of a baby and how the people closest to them interact with them are critical for their mental development and their mental health in later years?
So what does Infant Mental Health include? There are several fields, some of which overlap:
Social development: initially, your baby’s world is very small. He or she can only see clearly for a short distance and communication is basically limited to crying. But make no mistake, a baby already picks up on what goes on around him or her and is already learning about socialising. Mimicking faces or sounds is the first social interaction. If then the other person reacts to that, the first communication is established. Touch is important in this process too, things like holding your baby or providing baby massage.
Relationship development: how parents or carers react to a baby is an important aspect in the baby’s development regarding building relationships. What do you do when your baby cries, when he or she makes faces, sounds, in other words: tries to communicate with you? Ignoring him or her will leave your baby in its own little world. Fortunately, most parents/carers give a positive reaction. Some professionals are in favour of picking up your baby whenever it cries, to show that they can trust you will be there every time they need you. Whatever you do, do realise that the way you build your relationship with your child, will play a role in how they build relationships themselves, starting with friends in kindy or school, and continuing throughout life.
Cognitive development is about developing thinking processes such as remembering, making decisions and solving problems. It starts with your baby taking in all the sensations around him or her: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling. All these sensations will be processed by the brain. Your baby will recognise those that are repeated, and can already learn. A good example is the sequence we teach to ask your baby’s permission for massage: a specific gesture, accompanied by the sound of the word “massage”, followed by the actual massage. After 2-8 weeks, your baby knows what the gesture together with the word “massage” mean, and will give a response in body language, indicating whether they are in the mood to receive a massage or not. Regular massage will enhance your baby’s cognitive development as well.
Exploring and learning: it is so important for your baby to be able to explore and learn! Starting with their own body: the wonder and joy when they find out hey! those hands and feet are mine and I control them and can put them in my mouth! Then grabbing things, or dropping them (drop food from the high chair and the dog comes and it disappears). Touching things, putting them in your mouth, exploring texture. Learning to walk and fall and get up again. And that is just the beginning. Children need to be allowed to go explore, it’s the best way of learning.
Bonding plays a tremendous part in their overall development, but especially in developing mental health. Bonding firmly with the people closest to him or her, teaches your little bub they can trust you. It gives him or her the confidence to go out into the big world, because they know you’ll be there to listen to their stories and console them if necessary. Baby massage will help the bonding process enormously!
Sometimes the situation is such, that a new parent is not able to care for their baby, or needs help to understand what the baby’s needs are. In those cases, it is essential that family, friends and/or relevant organisations provide a strong support group, both for the baby’s sake and for the parent.
All in all, it’s about your child feeling safe, building confidence, getting ready to face the big wide world.