• Informed consent should form a major part of maternity care. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
When it comes to mental health, experts say we should turn our attention to infants.
Megan Blandford

19 Oct 2017 - 1:55 PM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2017 - 1:55 PM

When it comes to mental health, our attention tends to focus on adults and older children. But experts are saying we should also pay attention to infants.

If you’re thinking that babies just drink, sleep, cry and dirty their nappies – well, you’re right, but there’s more to them than that. They’re also going through the most rapid period of development that they’ll experience in their lifetime, according to Pip Wynn Owen, midwife and childbirth educator.

“Mental health starts with pregnancy,” says Owen. “We’re setting up the building blocks right from the word go, and we have this critical window that we need to make the most of.”

“Mums who are highly stressed have high levels of cortisol in the amniotic fluid. Basically, babies are swimming in their mum’s emotions.”

“We’re setting up the building blocks right from the word go, and we have this critical window that we need to make the most of.”

This means that the first step in creating positive mental health for our children relies on expectant mums having:

- an ability to avoid stress where possible,

- the knowledge of relaxation techniques and

- support through pregnancy and birth (yes, it takes a village to raise a child right from the start).

Those important first days

Dr Nils Bergman, a Swedish neuroscience researcher, has found that the first thousand minutes (that is, the first day) after a baby is born is vital for developing the brain pathways that foster positive health.

Dr Bergman points to skin-to-skin contact as a key aspect of this.

“If a baby isn’t nurtured and held by their mum, they’re surviving at a sub-optimal level; they’re not thriving,” says Wynn Owen. “In those first few weeks it’s best to constantly respond to the baby’s needs, because otherwise they have high levels of cortisol and stress.”

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The risks to our babies’ mental health are, in part, the result of cultural norms that encourage us not to hold our babies ‘too much’, train them to sleep more, and, as Owen says, “teach our babies that we won’t respond when they need us”.

Some research points to safe co-sleeping as another aspect to fostering positive mental health in little ones. Dr James McKenna found that children who have never slept in their parents’ bed may be unhappier and less independent throughout their childhood, than those who co-slept.

“Cultures that respond to their babies’ needs more quickly often have more positive development down the track,” she says.

“We need to be more instinctual, and put our babies’ needs first. You can’t spoil a baby.”

The first two years

In The First Thousand Days evidence paper, The Centre for Community Child Health reports that the 270 days of pregnancy plus the first two years of a baby’s life is a vital time for establishing positive physical and mental health.

Adverse experiences, relationships and environments are certainly a risk factor for ongoing mental health. Acknowledging that some Indigenous children experience significantly higher rates of poverty than non-Aboriginal children, it was noted that culture and kinship can be a protective factor.

“Cultures that respond to their babies’ needs more quickly often have more positive development down the track,” she says.

“It is evident that a child’s interaction with their caregiver is perhaps the most powerful determinant of their future health and wellbeing,” the report states.

They also reported that, while not all of a baby’s experiences create permanent changes to their brain, the ability to alter those first negative experiences becomes harder as the child grows older.

Setting up our babies for a happy life starts at the beginning of their days, and it’s important for parents and parents-to-be to understand this connection.

If you are in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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