Skilled parent-infant relationship support could ease pressure on schools, mental health provisions and child protection services in the UK
To mark this year’s Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, the Parent-Infant Foundation is calling for national governments to offer vital parent-infant relationship support from specialised teams. A comprehensive offering across the UK would significantly help protect the most vulnerable babies and young children from early trauma and help take the pressure off broader resources at a time when they are more stretched than ever.
A new report, based on two surveys by the charity, states that while respondents didn’t fully understand the lifelong complexities resulting from early trauma, the theme of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, 97% of professionals and 75% of the public agreed that early relationships are critical to children’s development. Furthermore, 84% of the public agreed or strongly agreed that health services should offer support to families with issues in early relationships between parents and their babies.
Nurturing relationships between babies and their parents shape early development, especially during the first 1001 days from pregnancy to age two. Nurturing early relationships is essential for future health and wellbeing. Babies can experience trauma if their primary caregivers struggle to provide them with the security and care they need. Babies who experience abuse, neglect, high levels of stress, or conflict at home, where there isn’t a protective relationship in place, potentially face long-term consequences.
Teachers and professionals working in schools and early education and childcare settings, whom the charity surveyed, reported a wide range of challenges experienced by children who had suffered from early trauma. These included struggles with language and attention, emotional wellbeing, social development and relationship problems with peers and adults.
If the impact of early trauma is minimised, which can be achieved by working with parents so they can develop positive, nurturing relationships with their babies, it is more likely that a child will have a happier, more stable start to life, and they’ll be less likely to experience behavioural and emotional problems in later childhood and as adults.
Sally Hogg, Deputy CEO for the Parent-Infant Foundation, says, “Four-fifths of teachers and early years workers disagree or strongly disagree that the UK Government is doing enough to protect children from trauma. Change is not only needed but overdue. Some children who experience early trauma can struggle with learning, act out at school, and experience mental health problems, impacting them and their classmates. Tackling early trauma ensures that children start school ready to learn and thrive.”
She adds, “Strengthening early relationships and addressing early trauma would reduce the pressure on our schools, mental health services and child protection services. We can transform children’s lives if specialised parent-infant relationship teams are in place to provide skilled early support to the parents and babies whom most need it.”
Stuart Guest, Headteacher and Colebourne Primary School, and research participant comments, “As a Headteacher, I see children who have had a difficult start in life and then struggle to cope at school, find it harder to learn and often struggle to regulate themselves inside and outside of the classroom. When staff understand early trauma, we can develop policies and practices to enable these children to flourish. Adopting a trauma-informed approach doesn’t mean we don’t deal with difficult behaviours, but it does mean we are curious about why children behave this way and care about getting children the support they need.”
Professor Paul Ramchandani from the University of Cambridge adds, “The science is clear that supporting early development can improve children’s life chances. Supporting parents in their interactions with their young children can reduce the likelihood that they’ll go on to experience behavioural and mental health problems. This should be a core part of children’s education and mental health policy.”
Sally summarises the situation by saying, “Society is rightly concerned about the mental health, wellbeing and behaviour of our older children and teenagers. However, if services and support are in place to help parents to care for their children in the early years, some of these issues could be prevented. This lessens the risks to children and has benefits for wider communities too. We want to see comprehensive, cross-government action so that all our children have the best chance of being happy, healthy, and able to thrive, and that needs to happen now.”