It’s Infant Mental Health Awareness Week 2017. The theme this year is ‘Begin before Birth’, encouraging us all to make sure that support for healthy mums, babies and families begins even before a baby is conceived. There is also an emphasis on the relationship between a baby developing in utero and the impact of stress.
We know that too much stress is bad for anyone. Stress causes cortisol to surge around the body and can leave anyone suffering with really unpleasant side affects. For a woman being stressed in pregnancy, birth or in the postnatal period has a profound affect upon her but also up on her baby, both as it develops inside the uterus and the days, weeks and months after birth.
There are many reasons why a woman may struggle with stress, including a birth that is traumatic. It may be that it was a pervious birth that was difficult. Many women struggle to voice that they had been found birth to be difficult and so will seek to move on, often being told that a ‘healthy baby is all that matters’. If support isn’t accessed or is unavailable after a difficult birth, feelings of fear and anxiety can persist. When another pregnancy comes along these feelings can be greatly increased, creating severe stress and anxiety in the woman and maybe her partner too.
For a baby in utero growing and developing, stress in its mother is damaging. Protecting infant mental health therefore includes protecting women emotionally in pregnancy.
What about the birth itself? When a birth is difficult, even traumatic, the effects on a woman and her relationship with her baby can be profound, both physically and emotionally. Bonding can be affected and a woman may find it hard to even feel love towards her baby. Feeding can be affected, as can all aspects of caring for her newborn. A difficult birth can affect maternal mental health sometimes resulting in postnatal depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder. For a woman struggling with a mental health condition, bonding, attachment, responding to her baby, and even caring for her baby can become difficult. For other women it can result in hypervigilance over their baby, fear that something awful may happen to them. They may have intrusive thoughts. It can result in an over protection for their baby, with a reluctance to seek support and help with caring for their baby.
Development of a baby’s brain in the early weeks and months can set the foundation for progression into adulthood. Secure attachment, bonding with caregivers and learning that they are safe, cared for and their needs responded to, help the firing of synapses that make lifelong connections supporting good mental health.
Support for women and their partners around their birth experience is vital. Providing support if a birth is traumatic or if a previous birth has been traumatic is vital to not only maternal mental health but infant mental health too. Prevention of stress, the damage it can do to mums and babies and safeguarding them both emotionally includes support before birth and after.
At the birth trauma trust we believe that mums and babies deserve the support that will help them both to flourish. Making sure that birth experiences are acknowledged and help is given when needed can do much to to keep our families emotionally well for years to come.
Thank you Emma x
You can follow along on the hashtag #IMHAW17