Becoming a parent to a newborn baby isn’t always the “bundle of joy” we are led to believe it is. The information out there often paints parenthood through rose-tinted glasses.
In reality, infants can have difficulty attaching to their caregivers and this may cause feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and depression in the parent.
In mother’s, it can even lead to the post-partum blues – according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), at least 1 in 8 mothers, globally, are affected by post-partum depression.
Extensive research indicates that the attachment relationship between caregiver and infant significantly influences the baby’s cognitive and emotional development. This impact can leave a lasting imprint and shape the child’s intra-personal development and future inter-personal relationships.
Promoting attuned attachment
Fortunately, there is a form of therapy that is highly affective in helping parents and their babies to form a healthy attachment.
It’s called parent-infant psychotherapy and it can play an extremely important role in bonding babies to their caregivers and vice versa.
Johannesburg-based educational psychologist Jo Hamilton, who specialises in parent-infant psychotherapy, explains that “in the therapy my focus is on the relationship between the caregiver and infant.
The aim is to promote a healthy, attuned attachment between them by closely observing and reflecting on the non-verbal needs and responses that are communicated in the relationship.”
She also says that there has been “very little public awareness of infant mental health in South Africa, and the relevant intervention and support services are not widely offered even though parent-infant psychotherapy research, training and services has been available for nearly twenty years in the country.”
Also known as dyadic therapy, this specialised therapeutic approach recognises that early relationships play a crucial role in shaping a babies emotional and cognitive development, impacting their well-being throughout their life.
“The greatest amount of growth and learning occurs within the first 1000 days of life, which is birth to 2 years of age.
This is the ideal time for parent-infant psychotherapy to occur as the attachment relationship is busy developing and intervention can be most effective,” Hamilton says but adds that “there is even hope that intervention and repair can take place at a later stage because of the neural plasticity of the child’s brain and the dynamic relationship between parent and child.”
When the parent and child attend parent-infant psychotherapy they can expect quite an intimate and focused session where the emphasis is placed on the non-verbal communication and emotional bond between the two.
“During the session the caregiver will be encouraged to closely observe and think together with the therapist about the possible meaning of the infant’s non-verbal communication.
This reflection, coupled with exploration of the caregiver’s emotions and thoughts, provides valuable insight to the attachment relationship and where caregiver and / or infant difficulties can be addressed.”
So, at the heart of the therapy lies the importance of understanding and nurturing the emotional bond between the primary caregiver and the infant.
The therapist works closely with the caregiver and infant to create a safe and supportive environment where both parties can express their feelings and emotions freely.
The benefits of doing parent-infant psychotherapy are far reaching and ultimately have a positive effect on the parent and child in the short and long-term.
Here are the 3 top reasons why you might want to try this highly effective yet underutilised therapy:
- Enhances emotional regulation
Through this therapeutic process, parents learn to recognise and appropriately respond to their baby’s emotional cues. This fosters emotional regulation in both the caregiver and the infant, which ultimately creates a more harmonious and peaceful environment.
- Fosters long term resilience and security
By addressing any disruptions or challenges in the early parent-baby relationship, parent-infant psychotherapy helps to cultivate a secure attachment. Babies who form secure attachments are more likely to grow into emotionally resilient individuals, better equipped to cope with stress and challenges in adulthood.
- Provides positive long term outcomes
Research has shown that children who experience positive and nurturing relationships in infancy are more likely to develop better social skills, academic achievement, and overall mental well-being later in life. Parent-infant psychotherapy sets the stage for these positive long-term outcomes.
In conclusion, Hamilton says that parent-infant psychotherapy is recommended “if there is an attachment difficulty between the caregiver and infant. For instance, the baby may have attachment difficulties, which is expressed through various behaviours such as feeding, eating and sleeping difficulties, language acquisition difficulties and other signs of developmental delay.
Or, caregivers may experience difficult, persistent emotions relating to their baby and parenthood, such as feeling depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, joyless, frightened and find it unbearable. It’s these parent-infant relationships that would highly benefit from psychotherapy.”
In essence, parent-infant psychotherapy offers a compassionate and effective approach to promoting healthy attachments between parents and their babies, and after all isn’t this what we hope for when we become new parents, a joyful and rewarding experience.