It's all about the baby
Well, it's Monday morning and time to get down to some serious meetings and thinking about infant mental health after all that sightseeing and socialising over the weekend. I must confess that it's left me feeling really inspired and refreshed.
But why am I visiting all these universities and talking to clever doctors, researchers and professors? Does this have anything to do with the mental health of babies? And anyway... do babies even have mental health issues?
Mental Health of Babies
As a parent-infant psychotherapist my work is with parents and babies who are struggling in some way with their relationship. Usually, having a baby is a great experience, but for some, it can stir up all kinds of 'wild things' (Raphael-Leff, 1989) inside them that they didn't even know was there. Perhaps mother had a tough time in her childhood and suddenly she starts to feel really angry with her parents (especially her mother) for not protecting her. Sometimes a mother gets really depressed after the euphoria of giving birth and can't seem to enjoy the relationship with baby. Perhaps the baby cries non-stop and has difficulties eating or sleeping or mother feels unable to bond with baby because he reminds her of someone or something bad that happened to her.
Believe it or not a baby can even become depressed just like mother. It makes sense if you think that the baby's caregiver(s) act like a mirror, and as baby looks at them they'll reflect back to him that he is either the best thing since sliced bread or that he's trouble, just like his dad. She finds it hard to see baby as the adorable little bundle that he is, waiting to be loved and shaped into an amazing human being.
The science behind all this shows that it really does matter how a baby is treated, even when in the womb. If mother is always anxious then her body produces a stress hormone called cortisol and this washes over baby, causing him also to feel anxious. Baby hears and feels what goes on in the family and is affected by the emotional climate in the home... yes... he hears the laughter, the arguments, the music and all the voices... even before birth.
He's wired up to connect with caregivers right from the start. And would you believe it... the structure of his brain is shaped according to the treatment he receives. The parts that gets stimulated are the parts that will develop well. Good research helps us to find this out.
So you see why I'm meeting with all these amazing researchers. The difficulties that mothers and babies face have a root cause and that's why we need to be on point with research to know how best to help and what works. When we come up with something that seems to help, we need to measure its effectiveness and find out why it helps so that even more people can benefit.
What about training then? There's no point having knowledge that can help infants if we don't pass it on to the people that work with them every day; such as parents, social workers, teachers, therapists, child care workers, health visitors, etc. I know a bit about how we do this in London but my reason for coming to the USA is to learn how they do it and to see if I get any tips to share back home. So here are some of the people I've met with...
On Monday 15th Kofi and I make our way again to Wayne State University, Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute, to observe the IMH Faculty Advisory Board meeting. This meeting takes place about three times a year and the purpose of the group is to discuss ways of improving the infant mental health (IMH) training programme by hearing from all the departments in the university that take part in it (social work, psychology, nursing, education). Students registered on the Dual Title IMH course are usually also registered on a degree programme from one of these professions.
Anne Stacks, Director of the IMH Dual Title programme, steered a very refreshing agenda for the meeting; which simply focused on celebrating the individual students' progress on the course and how to help advance them further, ensuring that they are able to access job opportunities and encourage them to undertake research.
The group discussed how they could improve their recruitment strategy and develop further courses together that are relevant to students from the different fields of education, social work, nursing and paediatrics, so that students can gain different perspectives. Like proud mothers, the leaders of each department celebrated because the students who had graduated had been offered positions after their internships.
Trained at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan in psychology, marriage and family therapy, infant mental health and family and child ecology; Ann developed the Dual Title Degree in Infant Mental Health. The course integrates the competencies developed by the Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health (Mi-AIMH). She has won various awards for her service and undertaken a wide range of research; such as, 'the influence of psychosocial risk on early parenting and infant development; reflective functioning; the effect of maltreatment in infancy and infant mental health interventions.
Ann is very busy, serving on various community boards, teaching, evaluating projects and programmes, etc. so you can imagine how grateful I am that she made room for me in her busy schedule.
Also at the meeting was Carla Barron, who stayed close to us throughout our entire time in Detroit, arranging our meetings, making connections and showing us around. Carla is Clinical Co-Coordinator of the IMH programme, so she plays a key role in representing the students to this group. Every student accepted onto the programme starts their journey with Carla and she sticks with them until they achieve their goals. If our experience with Carla is anything to go by, you can be sure that students feel held, accompanied and cared for while they are on the programme.
In Downtown Detroit
After the meeting we took another trip to Downtown Detroit, courtesy of QLine. I must say, they have done a great job creating the town centre as a place for meeting together, sitting and socialising. There are tables and chairs everywhere so you might think that you are in your garden rather than the centre of town.
Our next meeting was with Dr Carolyn Dayton, who had also attended the Faculty Advisory Board Meeting in the morning, but this time we would be visiting her lab to talk about her various areas of research. Carolyn is Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Infant Mental Health Programme at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development. She works closely with Ann and Carla to plan and deliver the IMH course.
Carolyn is involved in several areas of research, but as we toured her lab we focused on her Lullaby Study and shared stories about the power of singing to babies. Singing to Babies in Motown!: The Detroit Lullaby Study examines what happens when parents sing to infants and how this helps to regulate the infant. Kofi and I shared our experience of singing with our children and how our foster children were also helped through music to achieve rhythm in their lives.
Another area of research, entitled Baby on Board!: The WSU Early Parenting Study, aims to understand the underlying processes that parents experience as they prepare to parent a new baby. I was particularly interested in the aim of this research which seeks to improve intervention and support services to fathers who are struggling to parent in the face of adversity. Carolyn's focus on fathers is also seen in another study; Development and Implementation of a Fathering Program in Detroit, Michigan; The central aim of this study is to develop a family-centered and culturally-informed preventive parenting intervention for fathers and their parenting partners. We'll catch up with Carolyn again at another meeting later in the week.
You will see that all the research mentioned above have a vast impact on the way professionals work with families to provide the best possible outcomes for their infants. They pass on the knowledge to parents, social workers, teachers, nurses and other professionals so that babies have the best start in life.
Raphael-Leff, J. (1989), Where the Wild Things Are, Int. J Prenatal and Perinatal Studies (1989) 79-89