The West

Dr Caroline Goossens. Picture: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

Future mental health and physical problems often have their root in early infancy making it vital parents receive early support, according to Child Adolescent Health Services child psychiatrist Caroline Goossens.

She oversaw a recent five-day infant mental health seminar at Princess Margaret Hospital aimed at increasing staff awareness about the difficulties infants and their families could present with and the importance of providing appropriate care at what is a crucial time of life.

"We can predict a lot of the difficulties in adolescence with mental health with early difficulties in the very beginning," Dr Goossens said.

"It is not helpful culturally for us to be always saying it is just a stage, they will get over it, because really what we are seeing is if we can get children on to the right trajectory from the beginning, one thing builds upon another.

"(But) if you have something going wrong at the start, it can cause children to get off track in a way that really is very unhelpful."

Dr Goossens acknowledged people became anxious talking about infant mental health but said it was really about the social and emotional wellbeing of babies.

"People don't need to be frightened and think that we are labelling babies with mental health problems, it's more about assisting babies to develop in the most positive ways they can and getting them on that positive trajectory," she said.

The vast majority of parents were desperate to do the right thing and get off to the best start they could, she explained.

"I don't think there is ever any more motivated point in a parent's life than right at the start, for it to go well and do the best they can. So that is why it is such a great time to intervene before you get really established patterns set up," she said.

Intervention could be as simple as a chat with a child health nurse or mothercraft advice through to therapy and learning how to respond to a baby's cues.

Scientific understanding of the first year of a baby's development had exploded in recent years, including that they began learning how to handle stress before they were even born, and that continued in the early years as a direct consequence of their environment. Dr Goossens said babies arrived in the world hardwired to connect and form a close relationship with their caregivers.

"Sometimes though, if the infant has physical health problems or developmental difficulties, things can get in the way of that, particularly if they are very difficult to soothe, very unsettled babies," she said.

Difficulties could also be related to a parent's mental health problems or the relationship between the child and their care giver.

"If the parent themself has significant mental health difficulties like depression or severe anxiety, or if they have had a very difficult experience being parented themselves, we often see that all gets reactivated when they have their own baby," she said.

One of the most important things a parent could do for their baby was to be available and respond to their needs.

"Parents get very worried about education for young babies and that they need to be doing things that are going to improve their capacity to learn . . . the more confident they (babies) are in their caregivers' capacity to respond to them when they are needed, the happier they will be to explore because that's how they learn, they don't need to be sitting in front of a Baby Einstein video."

The West Australian

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