Far from being unaware, from the minute babies are born they are ready to engage with their people and the world around them.
In fact, the first three years of life – when an infant’s brain grows to 90 per cent of its adult size – are critical to fostering healthy mental development, including social and emotional wellbeing.
It’s why a safe, nurturing, calm and loving environment is so important during these formative years. And there are so many things that you as a parent or caregiver can do to help foster positive mental health outcomes in your little ones.
Given that it’s Infant Mental Health Awareness Week – and this year’s theme is Understanding Early Trauma – we thought we’d put together a practical guide to the steps you can take to provide positive mental and emotional health outcomes for your baby.
Your No.1 priority is taking care of you
The only way you can be the best version of yourself for baby, is by practicing self-care.
While caring for a baby can feel overwhelming and exhausting, many people tend to put their own needs on the backburner. But this is a mistake. It’s important to schedule regular breaks so you can recharge, with rest, relaxation and doing something you enjoy.
It’s also important to stay connected with your partner, together with your infant and alone as a couple to keep your relationship strong. Ask for help from family and friends if required.
By taking good care of you first, you’ll ensure you have the energy to meet your baby’s needs.
Be a responsive parent
When your baby cries, pick them up and comfort them. You can’t spoil a baby by responding to their needs and making them feel safe and nurtured. Being a consistent caregiver allows your baby to grow up trusting others are there for them in tough times. Contrary to popular belief, helping your child co-regulate encourages them to develop their independent emotion regulation skills as they grow.
Close contact is important
Holding, cuddling, gentle stroking and rocking all help build secure attachment to you (and a social baby brain).
Cuddling your baby a lot helps build a happy, healthy brain thanks to the chemistry of cuddles. Cuddles and touch release oxytocin, better known as the love drug or hormone, as well cortisol, which reduces pain and modulates stress responses.
What all of this means is, picking up and soothing your baby is never a bad thing. It’s extremely beneficial to their mental wellbeing and development.
The language of love
Even though your baby can’t talk, they will communicate with you in a number of ways.
In the very early days, this will be crying … as they express fear or the need to be fed, changed, burped, picked up, sleep, or moved to a cooler/warmer environment.
As important as responding to their physical needs of your baby, is how you respond to their cries, so they feel safe and valued as a little person. Lots of love and attention is important to build trust, as is speaking in soothing tones, returning their gaze and again, providing a comforting touch or cuddle.
Develop a routine
A routine will help your baby flourish, because it makes them feel secure and safe. Believe it or not, your bub will become more confident with fairly predictable feeding, play, bath and sleep times – making them less fearful of new people or outings.
The power of play time
As your infant starts to show an interest in their environment and the things around them, you can help their brain’s development by following along, naming objects for them, singing songs, and making up games with funny facial expressions.
Our earliest relationships shape the mental/emotional roadmap that we subconsciously refer to in later life. Being responsive to your baby’s needs will help them feel safe and secure so they can explore, learn and grow.
Keep your home and family dynamics calm
Stress is a fact of life and as a new parent, it may feel like there is no escape. But babies, who can’t yet regulate their emotions, will pick up on this stress.
It’s important that you and your partner are aware of the need for a calm home/family environment – and the need to manage your own emotions.
If stress, arguments, or other challenges are affecting your relationship with your baby, seek the support of your partner, family, a friend or someone you trust. Or talk to your midwife, doctor, child health nurse or another professional here at South Coastal Health and Community Services.
We provide health and psychological services for women, children and the family.
Some specific areas of service are:
- Emotional Health Counselling
- Perinatal Mental Health Counselling
- Family and Domestic Violence Counselling
- Psychology Services
- Women’s Health Services – Female GP’s and Nurses
- Self-Support Groups
- Early Childhood Centre for clients attending appointments
- Aboriginal Health Services including mental health support services, antenatal, child health, primary health and advocacy services.
- Visiting services to SCHCS include:
- Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC)
- Carers WA