Secure, nurturing relationships
Goodstart Early Learning Senior Child & Family Practitioner Alma-Jane O’Donnell says the foundations of healthy infant mental health development begin in pregnancy running through the first five years.
She says babies need secure, nurturing relationships with carers for the neurological pathways responsible for social and emotional wellbeing to develop to their full potential.
Sometimes life's significant adversities can impact on the healthy development of an infant’s mental health such as toxic levels of stress during pregnancy, war, domestic violence, child abuse and loss of a parent.
“Possible signs of risk to an infant’s mental health development can be, withdrawal of relational connection with carers and peers, gaze avoidance, high levels of anxiety, non-medical failure to thrive, dramatic escalation in aggressive behaviours or self-harm,” says Alma-Jane.
“With early intervention young children have the best outcome for full recovery, as their brain is still forming and able to be re-shaped. New neural connections can be developed very quickly by providing secure, nurturing, safe relationships and environments.”
The poll found 15 per cent of all parents felt their child was too young to talk to and connect with, and 13 per cent said they were not sure what to talk about or how to connect with their child.
Connecting through play
Alma-Jane says the best way to connect to young children is through play.
She says allowing at least 10 to 20 minutes per day of uninterrupted, child-led play time will help parents connect with their children and that naming emotions and talking freely about all types of emotions will also help children and parents.
“If we help children name their emotions, help them with strategies of self-regulation and role model empathy and kindness, they will grow up knowing it is okay to reach out for help when struggling with mental health issues,” she says.
“Do not dismiss feelings or try to distract your child from emotions. For example you can recognise emotions, ‘Oh I see you’re feeling very sad, it is okay to feel sad, I am here with you.’”
“It is also good to help children identify their body response to emotions. An example might be, ‘Oh you seem very upset, is your heart beating fast now?’, and then give strategies to self-regulate, such as, ‘When your heart starts to beat fast take four deep breaths.’ Children as young as two can learn these strategies.”
Alma-Jane suggests connecting with your local child health service, play therapy services or getting a referral from your GP for a paediatric assessment.
She says parenting training such as Circle of Security is highly recommended, especially if your child is struggling with emotions.