Across the 25 years I have worked with children and families I have always been aware of social divides and that some children’s experiences in early life are far more positive than others and that this can be for many reasons, some of which are a result of long-term stigma and inequalities. I now understand more about the early years and how the experiences we have at this point in our life can affect our biology and development on many levels. It is amazing that even though we may not remember events or people from when we are very young, our bodies remember the experiences in cells, through the sense and emotions. Situations which are not necessarily directed at us but happen around us can live on in our bodies and biological memory and can affect how we act and react in certain situations and how we feel about ourselves as individuals. Our early years experiences literally affect our whole lives.
For example, and in brief, negative experiences either directly or indirectly can leave damaging effects on our immune system and ability to emotionally regulate in the future. Of course, there are also situations which are remembered such as abuse which can leave a lifetime of trauma.
In recent years there has been much work and research on what we now call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) with the aim of improving outcomes for all children. The Early Intervention Foundation recently published a major report ‘Adverse childhood experiences: What we know, what we don't know, and what should happen next’ (February 2020)
“Research into adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) consistently shows that a set of 10 adverse experiences in childhood are associated with an increased risk of poor health and other problems in later life. This consistent and compelling evidence has brought greater focus from a wide range of policymakers and public services on the harm caused by child abuse, neglect and other adversities.”
The 10 adverse childhood experiences which have shown time and again to be associated with and increased risk of poor health and other problems in later life are as follows.
· physical abuse
· sexual abuse
· psychological abuse
· physical neglect
· psychological neglect
· witnessing domestic abuse
· having a close family member who misused drugs or alcohol
· having a close family member with mental health problems
· having a close family member who served time in prison
· parental separation or divorce on account of relationship breakdown.
However, the report does also acknowledge that there are other factors which are associated with poor adult outcomes such as economic disadvantage, discrimination, peer victimisation, low birth weight and child disability and by focusing on the 10 identified above there will be children and families potentially missing out on support they require. They write that “studies show that low family income may be a stronger predictor of poor physical health outcomes than many of the ACE categories.”
The question is what can we do about it?
The First 1001 Days Movement from the Parent Infant Foundation is a group of organisations and professionals including myself working together to campaign about the importance of the emotional wellbeing of babies. With this week being Infant mental health awareness week 2020, you can join in on many events which they have planned.
Within the work I do as a baby massage instructor I aim to improve the quality of parent-infant relationships by supporting parents to understand the difference and impact they can make to their child’s life from a very young age through the power of touch and positive, nurturing relationships. As an individual I can impact the lives of many parents and children over a period of time but this figure is nothing in comparison to what we could do as a whole society if we made child mental health and improving outcomes a priority. This includes investing in both maternal and paternal mental health as it is well documented that this has a major impact on the outcomes for children.
We need more awareness in raising the significance of the early years through education, in my view this should start with children at secondary school learning about early brain development, attachments and mental health, providing compulsory antenatal and parenting classes and giving parents of young children acce
ss to advice, guidance, support, positive relationships and role models in the form of family centres. As the saying goes ‘prevention is better than cure’ and if we can get this right from the start, we have a far better chance of making a difference in the longer term.
Baby massage is just one way of making a positive difference and it is through this that I will continue to educate, raise awareness and campaign for better outcomes of all children and families. For parents to connect and reconnect to their babies through skin to skin contact starts a chemical reaction of love and attachment which will help them both to feel more settled, secure, calm, and relaxed. It will help them to bond and form that special close attachment which literally grows neurons in the brain, forming a foundation for all future learning.