There is much discussion about environments these days: how to preserve our environment and exposure to the damage that thoughtless human activity is causing. 'Environment' refers to the surrounding in which we live. Babies' environments are the relationships they have with those who care for them.
'Growth-promoting environments' for babies denote relationships that respect and cherish the infant's individuality. From a baby's point of view, we may say it signifies their earliest world of safety and wellbeing. Of course, in our world today it is not only mothers who create and inhabit the baby's earliest environment. Fathers, grandparents, caregivers and many others may assume that important role.
So, this Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, we ask how those adults who have embraced the responsibility to bring up a baby with love may create the kind of bonds that best nurture their baby's development? A good starting point may be the question: 'how might this (particular and unique) baby experience what is happening to him/her now?'.
We know that babies are sentient - they can apprehend feelings and intentions of those caring for them. They know this by the way that care-giving person touches and cradles them, talks to them, by their facial expressions, voice and movements, for instance whether the caregiver swoops down on them suddenly, in which case the baby may feel jarred and disconnected, whereas a gentle approach with face and voice and arms creates a reassuring sense of familiarity and comfort.
Babies also try to make sense of the world, and in order to do this, they need events and emotions to be predictable, clear and genuine. From this we may deduce that another really important question is 'what am I really feeling and communicating to my baby now?'.
For example, when a baby is crying, and their mother is internally pained for them, she may pull a sad face to mirror her baby's and sooth them with: 'O dear, it hurts, but let mama help you'. This baby is probably going to feel that their mother understood their upset and wanted to help and was strong enough in herself (rather than being overwhelmed) to do so. But if the crying baby's mother laughs, she is likely to be communicating that she has little sympathy for his tears. Perhaps deep down she thinks she is not going to be manipulated by her baby! Or that he is a 'drama queen' (like her little sister)! Or that she is just too tired to go through this again..!
The baby's experiences of predictable sensitive responses from the adult lay the ground for the baby's inherent potential to be expressed. It is important, therefore, to think of your baby's behaviour as his attempt to communicate with you about how they are feeling and not as 'random' or without specific meaning. The more you try to understand his/her communications, the more your baby will feel acknowledged and nurtured as an individual.
Such experiences with their parents and caregivers are associated with better development - a mostly happy, curious, playful child - and better developmental outcomes as an adolescent and in adulthood, both in terms of physical and mental health.
If you want to hear more about the latest research on bonding with your baby, listen to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families' expert podcast here, featuring Professor Linda Mayes and expectant mother Rhian in conversation with BBC Radio 4 presenter Claudia Hammond.