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How to nurture your baby's future mental health

Baby mental health. (Getty Images)
A baby's brain makes one million neural connections every second, formed through connection with parents. (Getty Images)

More than a third (41%) of parents of under twos in England are unaware that mental health starts to impact a child's development before they are two, new research highlights.

In light of this, the government has launched a new campaign – Start for Life's If They Could Tell You – to support parents with forming secure bonds and nurturing their baby's present and future wellbeing.

A baby's brain makes one million neural connections every second, which are formed as a result of interactions with parents. And while most parents do feel confident in supporting this development, more than two-thirds would welcome more guidance.

And for those struggling – that's also okay, hence the need for better support.

Side view of new mother comforting her newborn while crying. Baby getting used to noises and lights in her first days of life outside the womb.
'Raising a baby is not easy and I hope that new NHS trusted advice will be helpful,' say experts. (Getty Images)

"We are committed to giving every baby the best start in life, and promoting that vital secure attachment between babies and their parents in the 1,001 critical days from pregnancy to two years old is crucial for their future wellbeing," says minister for Public Health, Start for Life and Primary Care, Dame Andrea Leadsom, who has heard first-hand that parents across the country need more support in this area.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy adds: "This campaign will make it easier for parents and carers to interpret the way their baby is communicating with them and understand how best to meet their baby’s needs.

"Raising a baby is not easy and I hope that new NHS trusted advice provided through the campaign will be a helpful source of information and support to parents and carers."

More than half (53%) of parents believe that parenting advice they received in their baby's early life, such as letting the baby 'cry it out' (53%) and limiting physical affection (52%) to avoid the baby becoming 'clingy' was outdated, the new survey from Censuswide also finds.

Almost a third (31%) of parents feel guilty for following this advice when their baby's cues indicated otherwise.

So, to help get you started, child development expert Dr Amanda Gummer shares her top tips for interpreting cues and building strong connections with your baby as part of the campaign, while a psychologist and counsellor share their thoughts (including why this doesn't mean parents need to be perfect!).

How to nurture your baby's future mental health

Mirror your baby’s reactions and emotions

man and baby
Look to your baby and respond to their emotions. (Getty Images)

"Babies need you to help them learn about themselves and the world around them. Your baby might be telling you they’re ready to play if they’re smiling or cooing. You can mirror your baby’s reactions and emotions – such as smiling back if they have bright eyes – as this shows them that it's okay to express those emotions," explains Dr Gummer.

Comfort your baby when they're crying

Newborn baby crying in mother hands
Dr Amanda Gummer warns against letting your baby 'cry out'. (Getty Images)

"It's important to respond to their cries, as well as their smiles, with love and reassurance. If your baby is crying, try soothing them with gentle rocking, speaking softly, or singing to them," says Dr Gummer.

"Remember, you can't 'spoil' a baby with too many cuddles and it doesn't make them clingy. Babies will cry for different lengths and at different times, so try not to compare your baby to others. Babies also cry for different reasons; pain cries can be different to hunger or tired cries so try to understand what they’re telling you to help you respond appropriately.

"Looking after yourself is also really important and will help you to comfort your baby’s cries."

The debate of whether you should let your babies 'cry out' has been a contentious one, but more and more experts are advocating against it. "Parents often report that ‘Cry it Out’ works as a sleep training strategy but only after three-seven days – sometimes more. They also often say they find it distressing and so does their child but then the crying suddenly stops," says Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist and host of The Aspiring Psychologist Podcast.

"In essence what we know about this ceasing of communication is that the baby or child is likely to have developed learned helplessness and giving up trying to communicate. This can kick the can further down the developmental timeline with anxiety [among other negative feelings]."

Play face-to-face with your baby in everyday moments

Young father spending time with baby son. He is holding his cute little baby boy in arms at home.
This is something you can enjoy too. (Getty Images)

"The more you cuddle, look at and play face-to-face with your baby, the more secure they’ll feel, and the more independent they’ll become. In time, they will feel confident that you will be there for them. This can be as simple as saying what they do and naming what they see, as you’re going about your routine," says Dr Gummer.

Let your baby take breaks when needed (and the same goes for you!)

Rest for everyone when possible is key. (Getty Images)
Rest for everyone when possible is key. (Getty Images)

"Your baby’s body language, facial expressions, noises, and cries are their ways of telling you what they need. Sometimes they might be telling you they just need a break. Show them that it’s okay if they need to try something different, or to just to rest. Remember to also take care of yourself, and take a moment when needed, so you're ready to understand and respond to your baby's cues," adds Dr Gummer. 

A note on attachment theory

pensive woman in front of the window
Our bonds with our babies can influence how they feel and behave when they grow older. (Getty Images)

"From the moment we are born, we look towards our early caregivers to gain a sense of security. As babies, we interpret the actions and responses of those around us in an attempt to understand how we can elicit attention and affection," says BACP-registered counsellor Georgina Sturmer, agreeing that consistent attention and affection is key as it can build a strong sense of lasting security, self-esteem and resilience.

"So when life throws challenges our way, it can act as a protective factor against poor mental health."

"In psychotherapy we talk about ‘attunement’ which is about being able to tune into the other person’s needs. That’s exactly what is being encouraged here, making steps to tune into our baby’s needs," Sturmer adds, though acknowledges this can be really difficult.

Parents don't need to be perfect

Caucasian tired mother laying down on the sofa and holding her baby son while they looking at each other face to face.
It's okay to just be 'good enough'. (Getty Images)

"When we are making our own way through those early days with our new baby, we might be tired or overwhelmed. We might still be healing from our birth or pregnancy. And the outside world doesn’t stop, so we might have other stresses and strains on our shoulders," says Sturmer.

"This might mean that we find it difficult to tune into our baby, to interpret what they need, and to feel present. This makes it important to seek help when we need it, and to notice if we are being critical or judgemental towards ourselves."

While the counsellor says the new government guidance is incredibly helpful, she flags that if we are feeling vulnerable or anxious, it's possible we might end up feeling guilty if we are not following these steps. "If left unchecked, these feelings of guilt can lead on to a sense of shame about ourselves and our ability as a parent. The good news is that we don’t need to be perfect in order to build a secure bond with our baby," she emphasises.

"Instead, we are allowed to be ‘good enough’, even if we are finding things challenging. And as our child grows up, if we continue to offer them a sense of security and ‘good enough’ parenting, then they will be able to thrive."

To see the full support available for parents and practitioners visit the gov.uk or Start for Life. Sturmer also recommends Home-Start UK, which has more than 200 local branches across the country and offers vital support to parents.