Infant Mental Health Week runs every year for a week in June (7th-13th June this year).

Our Babies in Lockdown report, produced with Home Start UK and the Parent Infant Foundation revealed parents’ concerns about their babies and how Covid-19 would impact their baby later on in life.

Infant Mental Health Week is a great opportunity to talk about mental health in babies, so we spoke to Sally Hogg, Head of Policy and Campaigning at Parent Infant Foundation, to find out what it means when we refer to ‘Infant Mental Health’.

Do infants have mental health?

Yes, they do! Their feelings and emotions are affected by the world around them. If we understand 'mental health' as our emotions and wellbeing, how we respond to the world around us and whether we're stressed or not, then it's easier to understand that babies would feel like that too.

So how exactly is an infant’s mental health different to ours?

Babies cannot understand what is happening to them in the way adults can. As an adult we're able to understand and label our emotions, regulate them and get them under control. Some adults find this challenging, which is why Infant Mental Health is so important: what happens in the early years gives us those emotional skills.

As a baby, feelings can be 'bigger' and babies may have more of a physiological response to what is happening to them. We know, for example, very little babies can’t stop themselves crying or calm themselves down, which is why adults soothing their baby is so important. Every time we pick up a baby that’s crying and soothe them, we give them the skills that, as an adult, allows us to understand and control our emotions.

How can we ensure infants experience good mental health?

You'll often be supporting your baby's mental health without even perhaps realising. Babies need nurture and care, from grown-ups who are sensitive and responsive to their needs. This includes helping a baby who is tired to go to sleep and not overstimulating them. It’s being there for them when they're sad or scared. Its soothing them when they cry, or showing excitement when they're excited. These are all ways to help them to understand the world around them, to feel safe and secure and to develop an understanding of how they are as a person, what they can expect of other people and how relationships work.

What would you say are the signs that an infant may not be experiencing good mental health?

Attachment theory, a psychological theory that helps us understand early relationships, is a useful framework. What we want is for a baby to feel securely attached. If they can trust their caregivers and feel safe and secure, they are able to go out and explore and find things out in the world, because they know that their grown-up is there for them and if they feel scared or sad they can go back and get comfort.

When that attachment relationship goes wrong, that is the sign of early mental health problems. It might be that a baby is learning that they can’t rely on a person and so are not turning to them when they need help, or want to share something. Or they are so worried about whether the adult is there for them they become overly clingy, because they are worried that the adult won’t stay there and be there for them. However, it is really important to say that babies have different stages of development and a baby might go through a stage of being clingy and this is nothing to worry about.

We wouldn’t expect a parent to diagnose an attachment difficulty in their baby, this is what health professionals who see lots of babies and know what 'normal' looks like would do. If as a parent you’re talking to and comforting your baby, and sharing excitement with what they find exciting in the world, you’re doing all the right things and there’s no need to feel worried there’s anything wrong with their development.

How can the mental health of an infant determine their outcome later in life?

We know the first few years of life are a foundation for what happens later. It’s important to say that it’s not that your whole life is determined by this, of course things can go right or wrong after that point. But with a good foundation, you’re more likely to be able to weather what comes next which is why we want to get this stage right.

There are a number of ways early years’ experiences and early mental health shape later development. Your body is developing response systems for how it deals with stress, and your fight or flight responses are set by your early years' experiences. So, if a baby experiences a lot of stress in the absence of an adult who is soothing them, their stress response systems will be tuned differently and that can lead to a greater risk of stress-related problems like cardiovascular disease later on in life.

Your understanding of who you are and what you expect from other people is very much shaped by your early years’ experience and that’s important as a lot of times in our lives we need to know that we can rely on and trust other people when we are having a tough time. If those early relationships don’t give us this model, that can lead to mental health difficulties.

What advice would you give to parents who may be experiencing difficulties in their relationship with their baby?

I would say ask for help. During the pandemic, it’s more difficult for parents to find professionals who they trust talking to about their problems. You might want to talk to a health visitor, children’s centre worker, Home Start volunteer or your GP. Somebody that you’re able to say to ‘this doesn’t feel right, can I get some help?’. There are fantastic services  that can support early relationships, even something as light-touch and simple as a baby massage group can help you to find those moments of connection with your baby.

I would also say that you can’t pour from an empty glass; a parent’s ability to respond to their baby’s needs often depends on whether that parent’s own needs are met. Sometimes what we need as parents is to support ourselves, whether it’s with our mental health or in our relationships, so that we are able to be present for our baby and respond to them.

How can we as charities ensure families are well supported?

As members of society, we can all care about babies' needs more and support families. We can all be promoting good infant mental health by ourselves modelling good relationships with babies and supporting parents in our communities. This has been extremely important over the past year.

As campaigning charities, we continue to try make sure that babies and their wellbeing is on the Government’s agenda. We have seen this in what we’ve called ‘the baby blind spot’. In Government policy, we can keep lobbying to ensure that babies are being thought about and invested in.

We can make a clear moral, social and economic case for investing in the earliest years. We all want to live in a society that nurtures our children. Getting things right from the start can also reduce a lot of the pressures on services, because we can prevent issues occurring, rather than picking up the pieces later on.

Sally Hogg, Head of Policy and Campaigning at Parent Infant Foundation