Time for Parenting...
...because raising children is a full-time job
January 2001 NewsletterBaby to child: the importance of emotional well-being
'Your baby needs to be kept in your mind as well as your arms. He needs your love and affection as much as he needs your physical care.' Taken from the leaflet of the Child Psychotherapy Trust entitled'Your new baby, your family and you', these words sum up the message given in the opening talk at our November AGM. Jane MacRae reports
'Louise Pankhurst OBE, Director of the Trust, spoke with enthusiasm and commitment of the importance of the relationship between infants and their parents from the moment of birth (and even before). Public attention has been drawn to the horrors of infant physical abuse, but there is also a pressing need to attend to their mental and emotional health.
Prevention is better than cure
The Trust is working on two fronts : to prevent poor mental and emotional health in the first place and to intervene quickly if problems arise. Prevention involves educating not only parents themselves but also those concerned with community health care from midwives to G.Ps, as well as teachers and play-group workers. Properly trained health workers can educate and support parents in developing secure attachments and thus greatly reduce the risk of mental health problems, educational difficulties and conduct disorders. Intervention involves identifying those situations where children are most at risk - such as where there is parental conflict and family breakdown - and offering psychotherapy to the children and their families. Experience shows, said Louise, that the earlier the intervention the better and "the more long lasting is the change achieved."
Louise stressed the importance of understanding the need for good attachment, especially during the first two years - and sadly how few resources are given to this process. In a health service which is often barely meeting the physical needs of mother and child, little or no attention is paid to their emotional needs, and much needs to be done to persuade those who allocate resources that this is vital work.
For mothers of new-borns, the incidence of post-natal depression is, Louise claimed, much more widespread than statistics suggest. Problems of insecure attachment and inability to respond to the baby's needs are worryingly prevalent. Adverse life events, lack of social support and poor marital and other relationships are among the factors causing such depression. (Over 20% of marriages/cohabiting relationships fail in the first year of a baby's life to a first-time mother. ) Other problems include anxiety during pregnancy and difficulty with bonding and attachment disorders - the main focus of the Trust's work. 'Regardless of class, culture or circumstances, babies are born with inconvenient and time-consuming needs for their physical and emotional survival,' said Louise. 'They want to be the centre of our world, with one person close to them all the time. It is easy to see how difficult it can be to meet their needs if parents are themselves under stress.'
Louise spoke movingly about the emotions and responses of new born babies, and how they communicate from the moment of birth: they recognise parents' voices, turning their heads to follow them, and will know the taste and smell of their mother's milk. Remarkably, they can even imitate a parent's facial gestures within 10 minutes of birth. Louise illustrated this with beautiful photographs from the video stills in Professor Lynne Murray's book'The Social Baby' (reviewed on our Book Pages)
Mother and baby 'are one'
New-borns can only survive, however, in an interactive relationship, attuned to their needs. So along with milk and warmth , they need closeness to mother, preferably skin-to-skin. 'Holding' the newborn is both physical and emotional - being held by a mother's arms and a mother's love. Such close communication between mother and baby is natural and immediate, so much so that , as Louise put it, 'they are one'. Reliable, sensitive, warm and loving care provides the foundation from which a child can learn to regulate his emotions and withstand the trials of life.
Early brain development
New medical research into early brain-function supports
these observations, showing the structure of the brain is formed by experiences
in the first two or three years of life. Healthy emotional responses allow
neural pathways to develop ; in an unhealthy, disrupted emotional life
these pathways fail to develop, setting up what may be irreversible negative
patterns of behaviour later. As Louise concluded, the first two years
of life crucially influence the rest - so this is the time when parents
most need help to cherish their children.