Joining the dots between maternal and infant mental health

Joining the dots between maternal and infant mental health

Maternal mental health has increasingly come into focus in recent years as more and more women struggle to cope with the adjustments and responsibilities associated with pregnancy and early motherhood [1]

Under the unrelenting external and internal pressures, women find their confidence often wavers and self-doubt jumps in with a critical inner voice telling them that they are failing with both mothering and as women if they aren’t enjoying pregnancy, can’t stop their baby from crying, or if their child isn’t reaching the nominated milestones at a certain age etc. With repeated experiences the momentum builds, and some mothers find themselves on a downward spiral leading to a decline in their physical and mental health and wellbeing, which then has substantial implications for the whole family.[2] So much so, that not only are we seeing increasing numbers of women affected by social, physical and mental health problems during this period, but also infant mental health issues are now being recognised in children from very early in life onwards.[1, 3, 4]

Many are familiar with babies sometimes having early problems such as persistent crying, reflux, or sleep issues, but far fewer consider the possibility of infants having mental health struggles. For most people, and even policy makers and funding bodies, it’s likely they have rarely seen the words ‘infant’ and ‘mental health’ together, let alone understanding that there is a rapidly growing field of research, practice and business undertaken in this area by a range of multidisciplinary health professionals and commercial interests.[3]

Put simply, infant mental health is about the social, emotional and cognitive wellbeing of children aged between 0–3 years.[5] There are many reasons why an infant might be depressed, anxious, often irritable or have difficulties with feeding, sleep and settling etc. However, humans are innately built for social connection and babies will seek a warm, loving relationship with others right from the beginning. Within their environment babies explore learning who they are and start building their capacity to be able to thrive, despite living in an often unpredictable, chaotic world. If a nurturing foundation isn’t offered on a regular basis, it’s understandable that their physical and mental health can be adversely affected.

Raising the subject of infant and maternal mental health is not designed to place pressure on women and nor is it about judging and blaming parents if they or their child does experience problems; in fact, it’s the opposite. Parents do want what’s best for their child, but we also know that raising a child can be a minefield for them as they work to sift and sort their way through the maze of information available on pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. The norms of motherhood are particularly dominated by the media, religious, cultural, familial, medical, educational, legal and political constructs that each dictate what is expected with regards to mothering and what’s more, they often have competing values. When women also add in all their own personal ideals and beliefs, along with the opinions of others from within their social networks, they have a potent mix of mothering‘shoulds’ and ‘should not’s’ that often leads to overwhelm. Little wonder some mothers, and consequently their babies, struggle with physical and mental health problems!

It raises the question of how, in an era when we have more technology, medical expertise and other parenting resources than ever before, has mothering become so complicated? Working as a counsellor in the field of maternal and infant health and wellbeing, it’s apparent to me that women have lost touch with their ability to tune into and trust the vast amount of wisdom, including parenting wisdom, that they have inside themselves. Over the years, women have learnt to work hard at applying a combination of ‘must do’ superwoman and mothering filters, and when life doesn’t deliver the promised happy ending despite their best efforts, low self-confidence and self-worth issues creep in. This diminished version of themselves is then accepted as who they are and what’s gotten lost along the way is the connection with the wise, delicate, sensitive, loving woman they naturally are at their core. In other words – it’s like they have lost contact with their best friend.

"We TRY and do GOOD for our children, but where does that 'good' come from? Is not that 'good' what has been measured, calibrated and or instructed from an outer-source that is outside one's inner-most heart? We claim to love our children, but do not love ourselves enough to-be-love, and thus truly offer that as a living example that makes them naturally be in their own true inner-love. And yet, whilst this may be a very sensitive issue for those who have children – when does it stop, and when do we begin to consider that we are following the same life that has imprisoned us away from our own INNER-MOST?"

Serge Benhayon Esoteric & Exoteric Philosophy, ed 1, p 321

It’s not just disempowered mothers who suffer in these types of situations; babies also struggle. Our child is looking to us for fundamental care, confirmation of who they are as a being and overall guidance in navigating their way in society with the first step being to establish an intimate connection with us and then from there, with the outside world. When an infant looks at their caregiver, they don’t see the things that society often uses to judge women by, such as size, shape, age, skin colour, status and so forth: none of these external factors matters to a baby.

Instead, babies naturally look at what’s below the surface with the knowing that inside everyone they meet is the person’s essence and this essence lovingly holds the truth of who the person really is at their core. Babies can see all the gold that is inside the woman; their mother’s essence – and this is what they want to connect to and have a relationship with. They also reflect outwardly what is within them in their own essence and this reflection can be extremely powerful and even unsettling at times for others to observe and feel.

Babies sense when the people around them (for whatever reason) bring less than their whole selves to the relationship, and they keep trying to break through the façade that is in the way of their having the most genuine connection possible with their caregiver. Through a baby’s eyes, it’s confusing to understand why their mother wouldn’t want to bring to the outer and share the beautiful being that they can see so clearly exists on the inside. The reality is that the child is more accepting and appreciative of their mother’s inner delicacy, tenderness and strength than the mother is herself!

When this amazing self isn’t openly offered to them, it’s understandable that a child feels a sense of rejection and sadness. It can be a real struggle for mothers to break through the prevailing norms around a woman’s worth and accept the honesty of what their infant brings up for them, and it’s not hard to envisage where the cycle of mental health problems can gain momentum for both caregiver and child in these situations.

"All a child wants is to be truly met. This means seeing them for who they are and not what they need to be for you or for the ideals and beliefs of this world. Once this occurs, they know what to do next and for the rest of their lives."

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 489

‘But how do I change things?’ is the common question I hear asked. There are no quick fixes or magic solutions. Getting to know ourselves from the quality of our being as opposed to how we measure up according to the benchmarks set by the outside world, takes time and effort. The severity of maternal mental health problems undoubtedly has an impact on a person’s capacity to initiate change and it’s acknowledged that the following suggestions will likely be well beyond the scope of what’s possible for those women currently experiencing severe mental illness. However, there is enormous self-empowerment on offer for women generally through the understanding that, in addition to seeking pregnancy, parenting and mental health support when needed, what’s being called for is purposeful attention to their ongoing inner growth and development as the woman they are first and foremost, rather than trying to fit into a mothering role laden with ideals and beliefs.

Such a commitment to ourselves doesn’t demand perfection; however, it does require a willingness to learn to be with our bodies in a way that connects us to that core deep inside that lets us know when we are on or off track.

Small acts of self-love and self-care are a great place to begin. This might include asking for and accepting help with the baby, making the effort to leave the home and participate in activities with others, or equally, cutting back on activities if life has become too busy, using only safe, trusted social media sites, turning off the TV and instead doing a Gentle Breath Meditation™ before going to sleep at night. It may be as straightforward as saying ‘no’ when it’s called for and not feeling guilty about it. Any little thing we do that honours ourselves and our bodies starts to develop a new way of being with life. They are the initial ingredients for bringing about true healing and change as they support us to notice and feel into what is happening on the inside, as opposed to what the external world tells us we should be, look and act like.

As we build more self-loving ways into our lives, we are gifted with the opportunity to know ourselves more intimately and this includes becoming more aware of the outplay of all the choices we have made and continue to make on a daily basis.

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Taking the time for learning to love and care for ourselves is not selfish – it’s an essential aspect of healthy living as mothers and importantly, as women.[6] As many women will attest, their babies are finely attuned to their moods, the tone of their voice, their facial expressions and body movements and so forth. Even newborn babies are very sensitive and responsive to the energy of the environment around them. When their mother is generally feeling positive and able to deal with the ups and downs of life overall, infants are usually more settled and socially interactive, which is a lovely confirmation to mothers that things are on the right track, regardless of what others are doing and saying around them.

Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood are a time of discovery for women and the quality of their relationship with their baby is a key determinant of infant mental health and wellbeing outcomes. We know there are barriers to women feeling capable of getting on with the job of mothering and that these obstacles can potentially leave mothers and infants with a raft of physical and mental health problems that may last a lifetime. It can be a steep learning curve for some – yet it can also be reframed as a golden opportunity to connect more deeply to the true quality of our own essence.

Learning to have this type of relationship with ourselves and thus with our child, places the nature of mothering and parenting generally on a whole new level. It changes the fundamental relationship with our babies from one of need, judgment, ideals of perfectionism and needing to control everything etc., to one of mutual love and learning where mistakes are allowed and seen for what they are: openings to discover more about ourselves. While Western medicine is much needed for the treatment of mental health problems, the current prevalence of high rates of maternal and infant mental health issues strongly points to the need for broader understandings of the subject from both the perspective of the mother and the infant.

Keeping things as simple and straightforward as possible in the parenting department is not an easy feat in our busy, picture-driven world. Change can be scary, but what better incentive is there to start working on our self-connection than that of a tiny child who so easily sees and is ready and waiting to build a loving relationship with the real woman within!


References:

  • [1]

    Austin M-P, Highet N, and the Expert Working Group, Effective Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline 2017, Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.

  • [2]

    The State of Queensland (Children's Health Queensland) 2019. Perinatal and Infant Mental Health. Perinatal and Infant Mental Health 2018 [cited 2019 26/04/19]; Available from: https://www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/chq/our-services/mental-health-services/qcpimh/infant-perinatal-mental-health/.

  • [3]

    The American Psychological Association. Babies and Toddlers Can Suffer Mental Illness, Seldom Get Treatment. News and Events, Press Room, Press Releases 2011 [cited 2019 06/04/19]; Available from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/02/babies-mental-illness.

  • [4]

    Weinstein, A.D. Pregnancy: The Experience of Accommodating an Other Within. 2018 [cited 2019 26/04/19]; Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-beginning/201811/pregnancy-the-experience-accommodating-other-within.

  • [5]

    Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health. 3 Reasons Good Infant Mental Health Matters. 2016 [cited 2019 06/04/19]; Available from: https://www.aaimhi.org/2016_AAIMHI-AUS_IMH-Matters-Infographic.pdf.

  • [6]

    Barkin, J.L. and K. Wisner, The role of maternal self-care in new motherhood. Midwifery, 2013. Volume 29(Issue 9): p. 1050-1055.

Filed under

Self-worthPregnancyMotherhoodParentingMental health

  • By Helen Giles, Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, MMH (Family Therapy), Post Grad Cert Family Therapy & Counselling, M. EPA.

    I love that life is amazing with every relationship offering constant drops of pure gold, whether that be in my work as a perinatal counsellor or through friends, family and others I meet in everyday life.

  • Photography: Rebecca UK, Photographer

    I am a tender and sensitive woman who is inspired by the playfulness of children and the beauty of nature. I love photographing people and capturing magical and joyful moments on my camera.