New Lamps for Old

Currently 1 in 10 young people suffers a mental health problem. There is a significant and growing bank of evidence indicating that mental health is determined by early life experience in ‘conversation’ with our genes – as research cited on this website site would testify.

It can be argued that sometimes the dull, unexciting and ‘dowdy old lamps’ of earlier times can shine a light on the best kinds of early experiences for meeting the needs of the Under 3s. Conversely, the unrealistic promises of recent policies and practices in many ways seem not to prioritise the emotional needs of the young and vulnerable.

The brain is fundamentally wired to interact. However, if the appropriate neural networks are not connected, nurtured through positive 1 to 1 human interaction early in infancy, they will cease to function. The qualities of empathy and human engagement/ ‘other-centred’ and ‘other concerned’ relational qualities are learned responses. It is critical that these are practised and celebrated with a loving carer day by day in the first 30 months or so, when activity in the Pre-frontal cortex is especially active.

The needs of youngest members of our society in several ways are being crowded out in a UK environment. Policies aimed to have positive effect on the economy have resulted in increasing numbers of parents spending ever increasing time away from their little ones. Yet care settings are financially under the cosh to respond – at times by trying to implement less than desirable staff/child ratios on inadequate funding. All seems contrived to undermine the essentials needed for the well-being of our youngest members of society. Whilst some settings do very well, one recent visitor to a Nursery Baby Room heard: Here are 10 babies, all crying, shared between just 2 or 3 of us workers– ‘What can we do?’

It will not do. We delude ourselves if we believe that our babies reliably experience the care they need in inadequately-staffed group settings – that they ‘learn’ and can healthily develop. What do they learn? For some, group-care can mean a paucity of sensitive one to one engagement with a significant adult who can empathise and respond to the urgency of their needs. Being left unattended will not be understood nor coped with by a stressed immature child. At the same time a parent who finds her I-phone infinitely more interesting than her child can cause harm too. Of special concern is that emotional stress raises a child’s cortisol levels which science informs us can have significantly negative impact on both present and future mental health – rising levels currently are highlighted including by the Duchess of Cambridge in her recent role as guest Editor at the Huffington Post.

The evidence is clear – it’s children’s needs that should drive care policies and practices. Urgently we need to attend to what ‘new science’ is telling us, but at the same time take respectful account of some elements of ‘old wisdom’, passed down through centuries.

‘New knowledge’ actually affords superb fit with the best elements of ‘old wisdom’ concerning what young infants need from those who love them most.

Dr Carole Ulanowsky – Trustee: www.whataboutthechildren.org.uk; Member of Academic
Team: BA (Hons) ‘Childhood Studies – Early Learning in Context’, Nottingham Trent
University