On 8 June, our shared learning event focused on the parent-infant relationship. We had fascinating presentations from Professor Elizabeth Meins on the power of mind-mindedness: a caregiver’s tendency to treat the young child as an individual with a mind of their own. Health visitor and perinatal mental health champion, Jane Dickens, showed us all why babies are amazing in her presentation and no longer just poo, wee, sleep, feed and cry!
Lisa Milne, Perinatal/Maternal Mental Health Lead and Lead Psychological Therapist (Parent-Infant Therapy) at Bradford District Foundation Care Trust shares her own experiences and why she knows babies are indeed amazing.
Over the last few years researchers have discovered how amazing babies are – that they have some extraordinary capacities as well as some limitations. But some of these discoveries are not well known. Yet by understanding more about our babies we can help their cognitive development and emotional well-being.
When I had my first child I knew that he would need his nappy changed, to be warm and fed often. I knew he would need lots of cuddles. But I didn’t know lots of other things about what babies’ need. I did not know that he would also need a companion; someone to share his moment to moment experiences, someone to communicate with and to make meaning with. I did not know that before he was even born he knew my voice, could recognise the language I spoke, and that within hours of birth he would recognise my smell, prefer my face and prefer my voice to all others. That being held against my skin would ease his stress. That looking into my eyes and sharing gaze with me would release positive chemicals into his brain that would actually help his brain to grow. That my baby was ‘talking’ to me from birth onwards – he was just using his body or ‘cues’ to express himself. I also didn’t know that babies are born ready to relate.
Babies have incredible brains for taking in vast quantities of information
Our babies are curious people with minds of their own. Babies have incredible brains for taking in vast quantities of information, making sense of their experiences and learning from them. Fascinating experiments have taken place that suggest that very young babies can empathise and want good things for others, not bad things, that they even have a sense of justice and are extraordinarily sensitive to other people. Babies love (and need) interaction, want to talk with and play with others. I did not know my interaction with my baby was actually helping build my baby’s brain and that joyous moments might be particularly powerful for shaping my baby’s brain.
Babies also have lots of limitations. They cannot comfort themselves, they hate being alone, and they don’t have self-control; their brains are not developed enough. Have you noticed that sometimes a toddler looks as if they know they should not do something but they do it anyway? Well, they are not being naughty, rather, it is because their brains are just not well enough developed yet to stop themselves. Slowly after more than five years they begin to have a bit of self-control. But even as adults we may still find somethings hard to resist!
I can remember finding it very stressful when my baby cried. Other people would tell me that “babies just cry – they are exercising their lungs” and that if I kept trying to comfort my baby I would “build a rod for my own back”. Interestingly, we now know that if the parent picks up a baby when they are sad and distressed the parent is actually helping to stop stress chemicals flooding their baby’s body and positive chemicals are released instead. What is more, babies who are more responded to end up being better at managing their emotions than babies who are left to cry.
70% of women don’t fall in love with their baby immediately…
It is not easy having a baby. As parents we are often tired, sleep deprived and it can feel quite relentless at times. There are a lot of chores to do as a parent. Many women find that it takes time to fall in love with their baby. 70% of women don’t fall in love with their baby immediately, but need to get to know their baby and build a relationship with them before they feel that they love their child. However, the more we can understand our babies the more interesting, inspiring and fascinating they can be.
So what I would like for all parents is that they know more than I did about how amazing their baby is and to know how valuable they are. After all, by being with their baby parents are shaping their baby’s brain. By treating our babies as if they have minds of their own we are actually helping our babies to develop. And, if we can all support parents and babies to enjoy the joy then we will have happier and healthier families and communities.
By Lisa Milne
Perinatal/Maternal Mental Health Lead and Lead Psychological Therapist (Parent-Infant Therapy)