How can parents support their baby's mental health?

Published on Wednesday, 13 June 2018
Last updated on Thursday, 09 July 2020

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Between the ages of zero and three, children find themselves in a world full of new experiences, challenges and relationships. To help them navigate these first years and grow into confident and independent people, it's important that babies and young children have good mental health.

According to the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH), your baby's early social and emotional development is the 'building block' for how they will bond with others, manage their feelings and successfully live and learn later on.

Of course, tiny babies don't just achieve good mental health on their own. Let's look at the role parents play in nurturing an infant's mental well-being.

How can parents help babies thrive mentally?

The AAIMH says that, 'secure, trusting relationships with their parents and closest carers are crucial to babies and lay a strong foundation for their later development'.

This means that as well as providing physical care, like nappy changes and nourishment, your baby also needs your social and emotional care. To foster good infant mental health, it's important to:

  • Provide your baby with a safe, nurturing and supportive environment
  • Respond sensitively to them in a calm, consistent and predictable manner
  • Show that you understand their needs and are connected with them
  • Keep them away from high stress situations

What effect does positive attention have?

In terms of responsiveness, the Raising Children Network talks about 'positive attention' – which is the way a parent responds to their youngster with interest and warmth.

Children of all ages benefit from this kind of attentiveness, but in terms of infant mental health, positive attention will make your baby feel valued and secure.

So, in your daily interactions, the Raising Children Network suggests that you show positive attention by:
 

  • Comforting your baby when they cry
  • Smiling back when they smile at you
  • Replying when they make sounds
  • Talking about what’s going on around you both
  • Showing interest in what they’re doing and urging them to explore

What is the link between responsiveness and resilience?

By taking a responsive parenting approach, your baby will feel loved and safe in their early years. And according to former AAIMH president Sally Watson, the flow-on effect of this is greater resilience later in life.

Ms Watson told the ABC, 'What the research has shown is the more responsive we are to infants in the first two years of life, the more autonomous they will be as adults. That is what security is about … it actually gives them more confidence to be able to take risks.'

All in all, it's important for you to engage with your baby and support their social and emotional well-being from the get-go. Because how your child feels in first three years of life has repercussions for the decades that follow.

Infant Mental Health Awareness Week is from 11 to 17 June, 2018 and you can read more about it here.

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