How strong relationships can improve infant mental health

on 04 June 2019

By Victoria Joel

STAND: The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) shares how they develop evidence-based approaches to design systems and services to improve infant mental health.

The first two years of a child’s life are a particularly important developmental phase, primarily because of the impact of early parent-infant interaction on the infant’s developing neurological and attachment systems. Children who grow up without positive and stable relationships are at greater risk of mental health problems.

The lives of families facing adversities, such as substance misuse, domestic abuse and mental health problems, are often complex. Parents themselves may be experiencing other challenges, such as feeling socially isolated or struggling to deal with their own traumatic childhood experiences. It is not surprising that for many, managing the day-to-day business of parenting is challenging.

Not all parents who face such adversities find it difficult to care for their children. But we know that, when combined, these are significant risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Very young children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of abuse and neglect. Babies do not exhibit the classic symptoms of mental illness or disorder, but research has shown infants can experience depression as early as four months old. They can also experience serious psychiatric disorders related to attachment and traumatic stress (Luby 2000).

The parent-infant dyad is the most important relationship, but other relationships such as those between practitioners, parents, and local services are also key. The NSPCC has developed evidence-based approaches that have been found to strengthen the relationships between couples and between parents and practitioners, which in turn can have an impact on the mental health of very young children.

Learning points

The parent-infant relationship

In 2011 the NSPCC, in collaboration with the University of Warwick, developed Baby steps, a perinatal education programme for vulnerable parents based on the latest science, theory and research. Delivered to groups of mums and dads over nine sessions, starting at the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy and including three post-birth sessions, the programme aims to support parents through the transition to parenthood with a particular focus on the relationship between parents and the development of positive parent-infant relationships.

During the programme, parents learn about the development of their growing baby. They are encouraged to talk and sing to their baby and to spend time imagining what he or she might be like. In the postnatal period, practitioners provide parents with information about how to interact with their babies at different stages. Practitioners offer positive feedback about how parents are responding to their infants’ cues, and model the positive interactions they hope to see between parent and infant.

Infant Health Week is 10-14 June 2019.

Read the full article which is also feature in MIDIRS Midwifery Digest June 2019.

© MIDIRS 2019