By Hilary Shaddock. Early Years Adviser for Norfolk Virtual School for Children in Care.
‘For young children, infant caregiver relationships are the most important experience for infant development and are the distinctive focus of the infant mental health field’ (Zeanah and Zeanah, 2009:8)
Infant Mental Health and the importance of their Sensory Systems
Some babies and infants taken into care will have been subjected to difficult perinatal, natal and postnatal experiences and their attachment relationships are disrupted, or at worse traumatic. Sensitive sensory experiences are part of the way infant and caregiving attachment relationships are rebuilt. Foster carers need to build an attuned attachment relationship in which babies and infants begin to regulate their sensory systems and as a consequence their emotional & physical regulation. This in turn transforms the baby or infant’s wellbeing.
What the baby brings:
Babies sensory systems are of course, immature and it can be challenging to understand their needs as their ever changing routine of sleeping and eating demonstrates. As time goes by and carers begin to settle into an understanding of the baby’s cues it is important for caregivers to be as responsive and attuned to the baby’s expression of their internal and external states.
For babies and infants in care who may have been subjected to trauma there is a lot of evidence (research references below) that the body holds the trauma and attuned care and sensory experiences are key in supporting the baby’s regulation.
What the adult carer brings:
Attunement and responsive care to the physical, emotional and developmental needs of the baby will build their self-regulation. Oxytocin can be released in both baby and caregivers during relaxed interactions and will act as a hormonal glue as we cuddle our babies.
Each baby is a unique individual and will respond differently to sensory stimuli. However, there are some activities we can do which generally calm and relax babies and improve their wellbeing, besides of course making sure we meet all their basic sleeping, stimulation and feeding needs.
Talking and singing in a prosodic voice Providing appropriate eye contact when close
Rocking rhythmically and holding Make sure we are ‘belly breathing’
Safe touch and baby massage
References: Bowlby John (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Tavistock professional book. London: Routledge.
Porges, Stephen W PhD (2018) :The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma NICABM
Van Der Kolk, Bessel (2014): The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Body and Brain in the Transformation of Trauma Penguin
EIF Evidence base for baby massage https://www.eif.org.uk/blog/infant-massage-understanding-the-evidence-base