Recently I attended a meeting at the Western Cape Association for Infant Mental health, an affiliation of the World Association for Infant Mental Health. Prof Astrid Berg, child and adolescent psychiatrist and senior consultant at ReD Cross Hospital in Cape Town, gave an interesting talk about the first 1001 Critical Days of a child’s life. This crucial time period begins at conception and lasts until the child turns two years old. Members of parliament in the U.K. have put a special emphasis on these first 1001 days because it has been widely recognized that prevention (of a range of problems that could lead to later mental disturbance) and early intervention (of potential or early psychological difficulties) during this time is highly valuable. Mental health problems can be prevented or avoided before they arise if the best care – medical, psychological and social – is offered during this crucial time. As these politicians have correctly pointed out, a focus on the early years should be an essential part of government policy making, especially in the areas of health, mental health and the socio-economic environment.
The brain of a baby develops quickly and dramatically during the first 1001 days after birth. She learns constantly through exposure to people, relationships, and all that she sees and hears around her. Everything that happens in her environment influences the development of her brain. This is partly why the first weeks, months and years of life are so formative. By the time a child has reached the age of 2 years, her brain will have reached 80% of its adult weight. Between birth and the first 18 months, connections in the brain are created at a rate of 1 million per second.
A baby who is exposed to toxic stress is more likely to respond in a pathological or a distorted way to stress later in life. Extreme stress that doesn’t go away actually shrinks a baby’s brain and it also affects the physical body as well in various ways. These effects can last a lifetime. Toxic stress can include various kinds of abuse, neglect and trauma.
The quality of attachment – the type of bond – that a baby has with a primary caregiver (very often the mother, but not necessarily so) is crucial during this stage. A strong and secure bond with one consistent person whom the baby trusts helps her to manage stress and traumatic or difficult experiences. The wild and intense emotions that are so common during infancy are dramatically eased by the calming and reassuring presence of a mother, primary caregiver or substitute mother. This special relationship between a baby and a caregiver whom she trusts should be continuous, without abrupt or long separations. A secure attachment with this caregiver acts as a buffer and it protects the baby from high stress, and helps the baby to regulate herself during those inevitable troubled times. For more about the psychology of babies, visit www.babiesinmind.co.za or follow us on Facebook.