If and how babies recall what they have learned depends on their mood: what they’ve learned when feeling calm is inaccessible when they’re acitive and vice versa.
This was shown in a study conducted by developmental psychologists at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) with 96 children aged nine months. They published their report in the journal Child Development from 19 August 2020.
One minute happy, next minute sad
The mood of infants is unpredictable: they may be playing happily one moment and be completely inconsolable the next. “Surprisingly, it hadn’t yet been understood whether these changes in mood affect learning and memory in babies,” says Professor Sabine Seehagen, Head of the Developmental Psychology research group at RUB.
Studies with adults have shown that moods affect thinking. We remember experiences that we had in a certain mood, especially when we are in the same mood again.
In order to find out whether this phenomenon, which is known as state-dependent memory, also exists in babies, the researchers studied 96 children aged nine months.
In the first step, the babies either performed quiet activities with their parent, such as looking at picture books, or they went wild by hopping around; then, they watched an experimenter performing actions with a hand puppet, thus learning how to do this.
“The aspect that interested us was whether or not the children were able to imitate the observed actions a quarter of an hour later,” as Sabine Seehagen outlines the experiment.
Just before the test started, some of the babies were put into the same state as when they were learning, while others were put into a different mood by playing the opposite games.
Access to memory content blocked
The infants who had been in a different mood when learning than when recalling what they’d learned could not imitate the actions with the puppet: the memory performance was two and a half times higher if they were in the same mood when learning and when recalling what they’d learned.
“This shows that fluctuations in internal state at this age can prevent access to memory content,” points out Seehagen.
The researchers assume that this may be an explanation for the fact that adults can’t remember any experiences of their early childhood.
And parents may thus understand why their children can remember some things and can’t remember others: some things that a child learned in a quiet mood may no longer be accessible when the child is upset.
“In this study we only looked at one age group,” says Sabine Seehagen.
“Further research will be necessary to explore how the relation between mood and memory develops with increasing age.”
Irrefutable evidence indicates that brain growth makes the first years of life qualitatively and quantitatively different than any other time of life (1).
Early experience ‘gets under the skin’ and shapes the brain, affecting lifelong health, behaviour and learning. No other stage depends more on the external environment for growth and development.
Very young children, whose brains are still extremely malleable to environmental stress, also respond differently to external stress than older children. While later interventions are also effective and essential, the return on investment is greatest in the earliest years.
The attachment relationship between infant and caregiver(s) is crucial to healthy development. A secure, warm, responsive and predictable relationship with at least one caregiver influences the formation of neural structures in the brain that lead to positive infant well-being.
Secure attachment also positively affects the development of the hypothalamic pituitary axis, which regulates stress (2).
Even in situations of stress, secure attachment relationships can help buffer the developing brain from significant harm (3). A sound social and emotional base is the launching pad for all other development – the physical, motor and cognitive development that prepares children for school and for eventual success in life.
If those early relationships are highly stressful – through absence, poverty, unpredictability or violence – neuronal pathways more attuned to reactivity are forged. This puts children at greater risk for challenges in life, including school failure and social difficulties (4).
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study (5) shows that traumatic or abusive events in childhood are associated with depression, cardiovascular disease, cancer, alcoholism and drug abuse in adult life, as well as encounters with the justice/legal system, and risk-taking behaviours later in adolescence and adulthood.
The potential of each child is realized through the interaction of genes and the environment. It is not either nature or nurture, but nature × nurture (6).
The genes wait and listen to the environment, whether in the home or in child care. Each child’s environment and experiences define the world and, consequently, ‘customize’ their brain.
When infants are in poor-quality child care or parental care is compromised due to issues such as serious depression, the infant’s responsiveness can be compromised. This can affect brain development and subsequent mental well-being. Parents and caregivers need to be attuned to their own mental health and seek help when needed.
In medical practice, the conceptual ‘milestone’ framework for motor and language development is well outlined but is less robust for social/emotional, behavioural and relational development. Neverthless, we are experiencing a recent increase in interest as to how domains such as language and cognitive capabilities may be inter-related.
For example, language research has demonstrated that children who are spoken to less frequently have poorer overall readiness for school and school success. In fact, researchers are now focusing not just on the number of words but on the quality of the interaction, based on the original work by Hart and Risley (7).
Various reports suggest that social-emotional regulation and behaviour problems in children have increased. In a recent survey, Ontario service providers reported a significant gap in mental health resources for children from birth to six years of age (8).
In the United States, more children are expelled from preschool than from kindergarten to grade 12 combined (9).
WHAT IS INFANT MENTAL HEALTH?
Infant mental health, or ‘infant brain health’, is crucial to development (10) and can be defined as (11):
The developing capacity of the child from birth to five years of age to: form close and secure adult and peer relationships, experience, manage and express a full range of emotions, and explore the environment and learn – all in the context of family, community and culture.
Children <6 years of age have a similar rate of mental illness as older children and youth (14% to 20%). Youth and their families often report that their challenges began in the preschool years (8).
In the first few months of life, just as parents are busy learning to read their baby’s cues, the baby also learns to read a parent’s emotional cues – the reciprocal serve-and-return experience. Infants sense and respond to their parent’s moods and emotions.
Although an infant’s language lacks words, it is rich with facial expressions, crying, cooing, gurgling or withdrawal. Young infants experience sadness, fear and a whole range of human emotions (12).
We are just beginning to understand the depths of feelings, emotions and stress responses that infants can experience.
Health professionals – nurse practitioners, family physicians and paediatricians – see infants and their caregivers regularly over the first few years of life. While these health professionals may not be mental health specialists, by devoting attention to socioemotional factors, they can take meaningful action to ensure infant health and well-being.
Building relationships with parents/caregivers and encouraging both parents (or caregivers) to attend office visits:
- Sharing observations of the infant’s growth and development with parents;
- Offering anticipatory guidance to parents specific to their infant;
- Providing an accessible, reliable parenting resource (eg, Caring for Kids <www.caringforkids.cps.ca>);
- Alerting the parent(s) to the infant’s individual accomplishments and needs that they may have overlooked;
- Be a cheerleader for the infant;
- Fostering interaction and exchange between parent(s) and infant or parent(s) and practitioner (eg, giving a book and talking about the baby’s response);
- Allowing the parent to take the lead in interacting with their infant or determining the ‘agenda’ or ‘topic for discussion’;
- Identifying and enhancing the strengths that each parent brings to the care of the infant;
- Be a cheerleader for the parent;
- Remaining open, curious and reflective;
- Routinely using a checklist in the office visit (eg, Rourke Baby Record); and
- Identifying, treating and/or collaborating with others if needed, in the treatment of disorders, delays and disabilities, parental mental illness and family dysfunction.
Referring families to specialists if there are red flags or issues of special concern identified through office interactions. For example:
- Overwhelming breastfeeding struggles;
- Unhealthy beliefs about attachment, such as “they have to learn, so I’m letting her cry it out”;
- Expressions of anger directed toward the infant;
- Beliefs about crying, such as “the baby is trying to make me mad”;
- How or whether parents respond to a baby’s pain or crying during or after vaccinations
- Parents who do not set firm, loving boundaries (eg, related to feeding, or sleep cycles).
(Adapted from reference 13)
Raising children in Canada is complex, with parents, grandparents and other caregivers playing significant roles. If other caregivers devote a significant amount of time with an infant, where possible, have them in for a visit to have similar discussions on infant well-being. Knowledge of high-quality care programs will make it easier for you to recommend supports to families. Resources and supports for caregivers are available throughout the country in various settings.
CLINICAL TIPS IN THE OFFICE
Observe for attachment behaviours:
- Does the infant turn to the parent for comfort when getting immunization or is distressed?
- Does the parent respond to the baby’s cues by attempting to console or soothe?
- How are things at home?
- What is it like looking after your baby?
- Does your baby give you pleasure, or are you still in the ‘hard work’ stage?
- Is your baby comforted when you try to soothe him?
Added to regular reading with the child, these further suggestions will help parents be more reflective of their children’s needs and help develop their language skills.
Encourage parents on the four Ts
- Tune in more to your child’s cues and interests
- Talk more – describe the world around them
- Take turns – be a conversational partner
- Turn off background TV
(Adapted from reference 14)
Ontario has Ontario Early Years Child and Family Centres, which offer a suite of services, connections and supports for families. British Columbia has Sure Start centres, Alberta has Parent Link centres, Saskatchewan and Manitoba offer ‘Kids First’ programs. Nova Scotia offers parenting resource centres, and in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Brighter Futures coalition operates in many communities providing similar services. All of these services provide parent support and links to other resources.
In Ontario, a parent resources pathway for many communities is available at www.18monthvisit.ca. Other provinces are discussing introducing similar features. The website www.findingquality-childcare.ca provides region-specific information and general information about what to look for in quality child care.
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