To truly address the Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health (I/ECMH) needs of our youngest children, we must also recognize and respond to the needs and strengths of the caregiver. A newborn does not live in a bubble, so what impacts a caregiver, will impact their child.
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMAD) impact many families when a new baby arrives. According to 2020 Mom, symptoms of depression and anxiety occur in up to 20% of mothers, making these conditions the most common complications of pregnancy. Despite their prevalence, PMAD are under-detected by health care professionals, and as a result, many people do not receive proper treatment. When identified early, these symptoms are very treatable, yet when left untreated, they can have devastating impacts. In fact, research indicates that suicide is a leading cause of maternal death.
Many birthing parents only experience PMAD once pregnant or during postpartum and have no history of mental health issues. Therefore, most are only screened for symptoms of depression and not anxiety. Additionally, new parents face countless expectations and judgements about what motherhood should be, and often, many mothers fear being perceived as inadequate in this new role. It is important for providers to proactively discuss PMAD with birthing parents before, during and after pregnancy and normalize the birthing experience, so they are not worried about asking for help.
It’s important to also consider the mental health needs of non-birthing parents. One in 10 fathers experience Paternal Postpartum Depression, and up to 16% of fathers suffer from an anxiety disorder during the perinatal period, according to the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality. In addition, many fathers experience stigma due to feelings about and perceptions of gender and parenting roles, not only felt by the individual, but seen within our society and systems of care.
Moreover, pregnancy, child birth and parenthood bring up powerful conscious and unconscious reminders of childhood issues, which can help or hinder the parent in responding to, caring for and loving their child. Helping parents understand their own strengths and their child’s strengths builds their confidence and supports parent-child interactions.
We know that factors like maternal depression and the mental health of other caregivers, such as grandparents and foster parents, can have an impact on young children’s development. The concepts of attunement, rupture and repair illustrate that mistakes and mismatches will always occur, even in the most secure relationships. But, when repair follows rupture, children learn resilience and that big emotions can be okay. The world, then, appears as a safe place, where disagreements can be resolved, and relationships can be sustained through conflict.
By creating environments where secure attachments can be made, caregivers will help set positive expectations for how children will understand themselves and others and how they will be treated and should treat others.
Given the wide array of circumstances that exist for young children and families, we must be diligent in identifying and providing resources to caregivers that best serve their needs.
This blog post is the third in a series about I/ECMH and this post in particular is in honor of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness of the common illness experienced by new moms. Thank you to the Postpartum Depression Illinois Alliance for shining light on this important issue.