The importance of nurturing one’s mental health doesn’t start once a person starts talking. Or walking. Or when they learn to read and write. It starts from when they’re in the mother’s womb.

The science of a baby’s brain is quite remarkable. Forming over a million neural connections every second, the brain develops more in a person’s first five years than at any other stage of their life. 

More and more research is being done into the importance of the first thousand days of a child’s development – that is, from conception to age two. The findings reinforce two pertinent facts. Firstly, infants do indeed have mental health. And secondly, that this mental health needs nurturing.

Think of a child’s development like a scale, tipping towards either positive or negative development outcomes. Positive factors such as supportive relationships and healthy learning opportunities are stacked on one side, and negative factors like abuse, neglect and lack of resources are piled on the other. A study by The Royal Children’s Hospital found that “When children do not feel safe, calm or protected, the child’s brain places an emphasis on developing neuronal pathways that are associated with survival, before those that are essential to future learning and growth.”

Dr Nicole Milburn uses the analogy of a plant. A plant will grow when the soil has nutrients from water and sunlight. First come the roots, followed by the stems and leaves. Similarly, a baby needs a healthy environment from which to develop.

There are simple everyday things that parents and caregivers can do to nurture the mental health and wellbeing of babies. Here are five of them:

Talk with your child constantly. From the first day they enter the world, talk calmly and positively with your child. They will model their expressions from you, so set a good example from day one.

Create a healthy environment. Your child is fully dependent on you when it comes to feeding them. Make the effort to opt for healthy options. Don’t smoke around your child and avoid alcohol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Ensure your child feels heard. Whether a baby is crying, babbling or laughing, responsive caregiving is vital. Letting your baby cry for an extended period without anyone appearing to notice can prolong stress and have long-term effects. Make eye contact and demonstrate that you are fully attentive to their needs.

Play time is vital. Playing games like peek-a-boo, counting fingers and toes, singing songs together, building sand castles… the opportunities for play time are endless. These experiences not only build your relationship with your little one but can also be considered a form of brain training. And they’re fun!

Expose them to new settings and people. While it’s important your child feels safe, this doesn’t mean holding them back from new learning opportunities. Whether it be play-dates with other children or letting them crawl by themselves around the park (while remaining in eyeshot), these new experiences build their confidence to cope with new experiences as they grow older, such as starting kinder.

When it comes to infant mental health, repetition is key. Creating nurturing moments regularly. For more information, head to Beyond Blue’s Healthy Families website.

Related reading: How to support your anxious child

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