Stress on babies toddlers and parents
The first three months of a baby’s arrival and growth is the most exhausting of all, and is enough to leave many strong and caring women feeling broken. Add to this a society in which work and career is desired and needed, and it can quickly become a nightmare journey to toddler-hood. Only to discover that this period has many great challenges for parent and child.
Counsellors and health care professionals are able to understand more than ever the complexities of body, brain, personality development and the importance of relationship with parents. It is the work of Sue Gearheart, Jane Gilgun, Daniel Hughs and others that has impressed upon me most the need to help parents be more aware and supported in the early years.
Now, more than ever, the importance of the parental relationship is understood to affect the very biology of an infant. The experiences that babies and toddlers have with their parents are the most significant, affecting their ability to internally regulate anxiety, fear, and relaxation. These are the building blocks of later good mental health, bodily growth and relational style. A parent who has not had a good enough parenting experience of their own, will find it difficult to manage the anxiety of their baby and toddler.
Impact on parents
For parents the significance of a discontented baby or toddler, is one that can impact their life long relationship with their children. Relationships with their infants, happens in a co-constructed world where the support and mental, emotional and physical health of the parent is key to this co-construction. In the very early days of becoming a parent, there is so much change, so many things to experience and learn. The capacity of parents to be able to fully attune to their new born, and to their own sense of themselves as parents is full of many distractions. The difficulty of these transitions for baby and parent cannot be overstated, and much has been said about the impact on a child. However, the impact on a parent of these early months ,can and does significantly affect the parent’s view of themselves, their ability and confidence to be all that is needed for the task. Fear and self-doubt can be fostered by the smallest of issues, and live in the relationship with the child and parent affecting the co-constructed world that is for life.
Birth experience and meaning making
The mothers and fathers experience of the birth of their child can be one impacting event. My professional life has brought me into contact with mothers who’s births have been difficult in many differing ways, but in this one way, the same! That the meaning to them of the difficulties, were that they were not a good enough parent. These mothers went on to leave hospital go back into their lives with a belief forming, that would affect their relationship with their babies and themselves. The impact on the babies, of a mother who is already building a case against herself as bad mother is overwhelming. The baby is not attuned to, so he or she does not respond well to handling or feeding or soothing. The parent takes this as confirmation of what they are coming to believe of themselves, and adds to this some form of meaning about the baby not liking her or rejecting her. You can see that in this way, a terrible cycle of anxiety, misbelief and impact reactions take place between mother and child.
These mothers very rarely ask for help or support of family members, let alone health professionals having added shame to their self-concept, they cannot face others seeing what they have come to believe. The importance of the mothers well-being physical, emotional and mental cannot be stated highly enough. Both mother and child are in need of hands on understanding and attunement, to enable restoration of a mutually secure relationship.
Help, support and change
Getting the support and help that is needed in these early months is key to renewing a mother’s self- concept. However, the impact of the way we live today seems to very much affect a parent’s focus on the child. More than ever, there are expectations for parents to be able to do it all. Cook, clean, shop, socialise, Facebook, work, care for other children, be a partner, care for the other partner and transition into an attuned parent of a new born child. The notion that this developing relationship needs to be protected, supported, and given time off from the flow of normal everyday life only seems to exist for a short period of time.
It is often hard for the supporting partner, to see and understand that something is needed to enable the mother and the baby. This is especially true for first time parents, who have great expectations of themselves and their baby. The supporting partner’s role therefore, is to enable the mother and baby to have time with each other, undisturbed time to gaze at each other to wonder at the communication that can take place, and to begin to read the signals of each other’s bodies and sounds. A new born baby will very quickly become attuned to a mother who is enabled to be attuning to her baby. More importantly a mother who is supported in not rushing, not cleaning, cooking, shopping, texting and face-booking will start to feel confident about her skills and abilities to care for her baby. Inside this confidence, she will be able to make meanings of herself as a mother, and so develop an internal construct of being a good mother. This good mother can then with confidence attune to her baby, and her baby will tell her what it needs and she will meet them. In this way, a co-constructed relationship is built, and a positive cycle of relationship begins and can be taken forward into life.
I cannot recommend highly enough, Sue Gearhearts book Why Love Matters. It is not light reading, but most certainly does inform parents of the need for early intervention in relationship difficulties, and in understanding babies or toddlers current difficult to handle behaviour. It also informs parents that self-esteem and confidence is impacted by their own very unique relational style and internal biological responses to stress, which was in turn laid down in their brains as a child. The GOOD NEWS is that if you can be aware of this, it is possible to bring change even to these internal mechanisms.
Many parents are gathering information months before their baby is born. Understanding yourself, your ways of coping with stress is also important to being able to see when things are not going well, or as you had hoped. Being prepared to seek help from health professionals is part of being a parent. If your tooth hurts, you go to a dentist. If your relationship hurts, you go to a relationship counsellor. If your baby child bond is not working, you need specific help from a child care professional, health visitor, sure start centre, children’s centres, therapist or baby whisperer. Over the many years of having my own babies, I have seen health visitors roles change from being one where you could be assured of a home visit if you called. To very minimal intervention, unless things have become serious enough to affect development, or the mother becomes depressed (this is not the fault of professionals). It is harder than ever for mothers to get help and support from family members, due to life style changes in society, and for some, the break down in family relations leaves them very isolated.
Being a parent, baby or toddler is hard work and can have many stressors, but the love and reward to be found in atuned relationship will be life long.