The Blog

Building Babies' Brains Through a Better Start

Infant mental health (IMH) refers to how well a child develops socially and emotionally. Because babies' worlds are mostly made up of their parents or carers, their mental health is heavily influenced by the care they receive and quality of the baby-carer relationship.

One of the leading lights working with vulnerable families across the country is the Big Lottery A Better Start project which sees five key localities with significant poverty, inequality and disadvantage ensure that every baby has the best possible start in life in their community.

Babies that have the much needed nurturing environment and healthy relationships to grow are in a stronger position for positive relationships, better learning outcomes and a positive contribution to society. One of PIP UKs key partners asks Dr Alice Haynes, Development and Learning Advisor for A Better Start to write a guest blog demonstrating why.

Infant mental health (IMH) refers to how well a child develops socially and emotionally. Because babies' worlds are mostly made up of their parents or carers, their mental health is heavily influenced by the care they receive and quality of the baby-carer relationship.

To be happy and healthy, babies need consistent, sensitive, 'tuned in' care from their mums, dads or carers. Without this, babies' mental health, and in turn their physical, cognitive and emotional development, can suffer. A baby's brain is developing at a rate of knots during the first two years of life. The interactions and relationships they have shape the way their brain forms - for better or worse.

But we know that giving babies this 'tuned in' care, although critically important, isn't always easy; parenting well can be challenging for most parents. It is even more difficult for those struggling with extra pressures and adversity in their lives, like mental health difficulties, domestic abuse, substance misuse or past trauma.

So what more can be done to support parents and caregivers during this critical period?

A Better Start (ABS) is a major strategic programme, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and focussed on developing and testing new approaches to preventing poor child outcomes in pregnancy and the first three years of life. The programme is being delivered over ten years by five partnerships in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend-on-Sea. The Warwick Consortium is evaluating ABS and the learning from this and the local partnerships will be shared widely.

Each local partnership is changing the way that existing services, the VCSE and community work together to improve three child developmental outcomes for their local 0-3s:

- Social and emotional development;

- Diet and nutrition; and

- Speech, language and communication.

Finding and testing ways to promote positive and healthy relationships between infants and their carers, beginning in pregnancy, is key to improving these three outcomes. Not only do good early relationships guide babies' development of healthy social and emotional behaviours, but evidence tells us that they play a key role in speech, language and communication development. We also know that breastfeeding can support mother-child bonding.

The ABS local partnerships are developing and delivering a range of approaches to improving infant mental health. Here are just a few.

In Lambeth, the LEAP team (Lambeth Early Action Partnership) is running the Parent and Infant Relationship Service (PAIRS), an evidence-based service which aims to help parents get closer to their baby through the provision of one-to-one or group therapeutic support.

In Blackpool, Baby Steps, a perinatal education programme which aims to strengthen parent-infant relationships, is available to all new mums and dads in the target wards. Video Interaction Guidance is also being offered to families to help increase parental sensitivity in families where there are attachment difficulties.

The Small Steps, Big Changes partnership in Nottingham are developing and testing Small Steps at Home, a home visiting programme delivered by family mentors focusing on improving social and emotional development, and Bump, Birth and Baby, an antenatal group aimed at supporting parent-baby relationships.

Better Start Bradford are in the process of designing an IMH service, which will be delivered by a multidisciplinary team and will include both supervision and training for universal services practitioners, and one to one support for families. In addition, to celebrate Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, Better Start Bradford are running a host of activities for families around 'building babies' brains', including creative stay and play sessions and workshops for parents on brain development.

We know that commissioning services in isolation won't have the impact we so urgently need to see. We also need to build strong local pathways between services to support expectant and new parents. A great example of innovation in this area is Mums and Babies in Mind, a Maternal Mental Health Alliance project hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. Running in two ABS partnerships, Southend-on-Sea and Blackpool Better Start, alongside two other areas (Haringey and Gloucestershire), the project aims to support local leaders to ensure there are clear care pathways in place for mums with perinatal mental health problems and their babies.

It is huge testament to all of the hard work and determination of the families and practitioners in the five A Better Start partnerships, that the programme received the prestigious Infant Mental Health Award for Locality Inclusion at the PIPUK National Conference in London.

You can read more about A Better Start at