The Critical Currency of Earliest Relationships

14/06/2016 15:06 | Updated 14 June 2016

Last week saw the UKs first infant mental health awareness week which sought to unpack the critical social currency of earliest relationships and why this matters for supporting good mental health outcomes for children.

Parent Infant Partnership (PIP) UK is a not-for-profit organisation which has been set up to support vulnerable infant-family relationships throughout the UK, through a network of community therapeutic services in villages, towns and cities across the country. We have brought together national institutions and organisations for this critical community topic.

Alongside Public Health England (PHE), Royal College of Midwives (RCM), Institute of Health Visiting (IHV) Community Practitioners Health Visiting Association (CPHVA), Association for Infant Mental Health (AIMH), Zero to Three and over 100 organisations, the week highlighted the importance of the first 1001 days of a child's life.

What is infant mental health?

Whenever I mention the phrase 'Infant mental Health' to anyone that hasn't heard it before a look of dismay comes over their face - how can infants have mental health? Observing the puzzled look I continue to put into context and explain that we all have physical and mental health which begins in infancy.

Part of the conversation entails differentiating between mental health and mental illness which are so often lumped and stigmatised together to mean the same thing in so many people's minds. Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge recently highlighted this for children's mental health. No health without mental health - we all have mental health to look after as with physical health.

Infant mental health then in its simplest form takes us back to the origins of the mind in which our mental health is contained, beginning in infancy. Most of us would acknowledge we don't have conscious memories of that time in our lives and yet this critical period of human development continues to shape us today.

Infant mental health is concerned with babies, toddlers and their relationships - relationships being the context in which a babies' mind is built. Earliest relationships cultivate social and emotional development, cognitive and mental development in which the ideal environment in which to grow a babies' brain for healthy outcomes, is through sensitive and responsive caring experiences.

Why does it matter?
Infant and early mental health development is an opportunity in which to lay the foundations of the mind for good mental health, using a strength based approach to family and community life for babies, toddlers and their relationships.
It matters because prevention is cure. If we extrapolate the incontrovertible science and economics of the first 1001 days: conception to age 2 into the real world of family and community relationships, we can grow and evolve our knowledgebase as a society, in order to take collective responsibility for our youngest citizens - strengthening together the village around the infant-family.

Science and economics show us that:
• Supporting emotional health in pregnancy has high social and financial returns
• Understanding the first 1001 days is an opportunity to address health inequalities
• Investing in infancy as the fastest period of growth for brain development matters
Acting on key statistics that impact on infant and early mental wellbeing
• 26 per cent of babies in the UK have a parent affected by domestic violence, mental health or substance misuse
• Domestic violence affects 39,000 babies
• Mental health problems affect 144,000 babies
• Substance misuse affects 109,000 babies
• 36 per cent of serious case reviews into deaths or serious abuse involve a child under one
• Depression and anxiety affect 10-15 out of every 100 pregnant women
• Over a third of domestic violence begins in pregnancy
• Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs in about 8 per cent of pregnant women
• One million children in the UK suffer from the type of problems (including ADHD, conduct disorder, emotional problems and vulnerabilities to chronic illness) that are increased by antenatal depression, anxiety and stress
• Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for women during pregnancy and in the year after giving birth
• Earlier this year, only 3 per cent of local areas had a perinatal infant mental health strategy

Growing the social brain
Key statistics above demonstrate the need to support the earliest foundations of infant-family-community relationships where challenging contexts of mental distress are demonstrated to have a profound impact upon infant and early childhood development.

The positive vision for early relationships however despite some of the family and community challenges we face in the UK around mental health, is one where future generations can have the possibility and potential for strong, secure relationships, strong families and strong community life to produce a strong mindful society if we make that choice.

Growing the social brain through sensitive and responsive relationships in infancy supported by a culture of a village around the infant-family is a choice we can make collectively. It is our choices that affect their life chances.

Will we choose to grow relationships, family and community life in the UK highlighting the dignity of the citizen beginning in the first 1001 days of a child's life: conception to age 2 or do we choose to ignore what are the fundamentals and social currency of society - relationships.