IMHAW: Understanding Early Trauma

Published: 15 June 2022 to 31 December 2098

An article written by Georgina, Perinatal Mental Health Nursery Nurse at Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber (RDaSH) NHS Foundation Trust for Infant Mental Health Awareness Week.

“The mental health of infants should be viewed as no less important than their physical health. Positive mental health in infancy is an essential part of healthy development and achieving greater life outcomes.”

-Georgina, Perinatal Mental Health Nursery Nurse, Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber (RDaSH) NHS Foundation Trust

Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (IMHAW) takes place every year in June. This year’s theme is ‘understanding early trauma’. This week gives us the opportunity to call attention to the importance of social and emotional wellbeing and development in babies and children in their early years of life and how this can shape their future.

Scientific research suggests that the experiences and parenting a baby receives will physically shape their developing brain. The brain develops the quickest from in the womb up to the first two years of life. In particular, the connections that determine our emotional reactions and the functions for thinking rationally. Research shows that infants with a secure attachment to a main caregiver develop more connections in the brain.

An infant suffering from mental health illnesses may struggle to regulate emotions, think rationally and therefore are unable to develop skills such as cognitive, social, and emotional skills. This could impact a child’s “school readiness” and could potentially limit their opportunities in life. This is because an infant cannot access their ‘thinking’ brain if they are overloaded with emotions and stress hormones. They may suffer from depression, anxiety and behavioural problems, experience lower educational outcomes and job opportunities.

Some physical symptoms of poor infant mental health can include:

  • Poor sleeping pattern
  • Eating problems/ gastric distress
  • Excessive crying
  • Tense
  • Anxious
  • Hypervigilant
  • Low self esteem
  • Physically ill

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and early trauma can affect future mental health. There is a higher chance that as adults, they may develop unhealthy coping strategies. But by having secure attachments and being consistently responded to it enables babies and children to achieve positive outcomes, recover from traumatic experiences and function well under stress throughout their whole life. Children may have greater life outcomes such as better physical health, better ability to focus, good academic achievement and educational outcomes.

A child's brain needs stimulation, engagement, and attachment. Creating lots of ‘serve and return’ interactions between an infant and their carer allows the child to feel safe to explore their environment and learn various new skills. The way the primary carer responds to their child will influence the child's behaviour and the person they become as they grow older. 

It is important to remember that if a child experiences responsive and reliable relationships with a secondary carer or a ‘buffer/emotional anchor’ (such as a grandparent or another relative) they may have much better outcomes in life.

The Perinatal Mental Health Team are here to support infant mental health from the antenatal period until your baby is one year old. Some interventions we offer are baby massage, baby yoga, mother, and baby groups, supporting bonding/attachment, NBO (Newborn Behavioural Observation), GRO brain and much more.

For more information about how to get help from the Specialist Perinatal Mental Health Team for women registered with a GP in Hull, East Riding, North Lincolnshire, and North East Lincolnshire please visit Every Mum Matters website.

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