Positive early relationships support healthy brain development and better mental health outcomes for children as they grow. In the first few years of life, our experiences shapes how our brain develops. You might sometimes hear this relationship building referred to as bonding and attachment.
Just as your child’s body grows better with the right food, a child’s brain grows better when you do five simple things:
Tip for expectant parents: when you notice your baby moving around and respond, it helps your baby to feel safe and connected to you.
Tip for babies: your baby’s movements, sounds and responses are all ways to communicate with you. It can take time to get to know your baby – take time to watch and wonder, try and guess what their cries might mean and meet their needs.
Tip for toddlers: your toddler will watch the expression on your face and the way you use your hands and your body to know how you feel and are responding to them. They are learning about their own feelings too.
Tip for expectant parents: touch is your baby’s first connection with the outside world – your baby will love it when you hold or stroke them.
Tip for babies: Your baby feels safer when they are close with you – cuddle them as often as they like. As well as touch that soothes (cuddles), babies enjoy touch that stimulates (tickles); you could try finger games like ’round and round the garden’.
Tip for toddlers: as well as cuddling, all sorts of physical contact can help your toddler to develop self-regulation – holding hands, brushing hair, massage, stroking, tickling.
Tip for expectant parents: looking after yourself and finding ways that you can relax, both when you’re pregnant and after the birth are important to you and your baby.
Tip for babies: try to end exciting play sessions with a wind-down time in which you and your baby can enjoy a few moments of calm. Think about what makes a relaxing space for your baby to be in – soft lighting, warmth and gentle sounds all help.
Tip for toddlers: toddler brains are not yet able to manage stress – they still need to tune in to your brain and body to calm themselves down. When you relax, it helps them to learn to relax too.
Tip for expectant parents: singing or gently dancing or being playful with others all helps to activate your babies brain.
Tip for babies: toys are great, but the best toy for your baby is you! When you pull faces your baby will try and copy you – try sticking out your tongue. Babies are learning about communication and understanding feelings.
Tip for toddlers: play works best when you are at the same level as your child. Follow your child’s lead – if you join in their game, you are telling them that their ideas and decisions are important.
Tip for expectant parents: a baby can hear their parent or carers’ voices even before they were born; when you talk to your baby, sing, or read to them, their brain is already getting ready to talk, sing and read one day.
Tip for babies: talk to your baby about what they are experiencing – “Can you feel the soft toy?” “Did you see the cat?” “You’re enjoying your milk this morning.”
Tip for toddlers: songs, poems and rhymes are great ways to get toddlers interested in having fun with words and getting control of their voice.
You might already be doing lots of these already with your baby or toddler. It makes a difference – it’s these small day to day moments that matter. For more information and tips visit the Family Assist portal.
As your child gets older, they may be better able to communicate, but they might struggle to explain their needs to you. Many children will experience emotional issues at times, for example, low mood or worry.
There might be signs they are struggling – they might say things like:
You know your child best and if they seem off, then try and talk to them about how they are feeling. Here are some tips:
If you think your child needs support, there is guidance about children’s social, emotional and mental health and where you can get help.
Being a parent or carer can be challenging. It is common to struggle with new responsibilities and feel overwhelmed at times.
If you are struggling with your relationship with your baby or child, please reach out to your local health visiting or school nursing team.
Looking after your own mental health is an important part of parenting, visit the pages below for information and support.