The relationship an infant has with their primary caregiver (in our society, this is usually the mother) has a profound impact on the infant’s future development. It is now well recognised that experiences in the first weeks and months of life help shape the developing brain; the most important of these experiences is the relationship between the infant and their caregiver.
One of the earliest tasks of infancy is for the infant to be able to express and regulate their emotions; they learn to do this with the help of a sensitive and responsive caregiver. The foundation for their future mental health is based on this capacity for emotional regulation. Secure attachment relationships that involve opportunities for play, everyday activities and sharing of emotions, facilitate optimal brain development and stimulate the infant’s curiosity to explore and learn.
The earliest family relationships are where infants learn how to interact and relate, and this has implications for their sense of connectedness to others and for future participation in society.
Child and family health nurses are well positioned to provide information, guidance and encouragement to parents in forming responsive and sensitive relationships with their babies. Research indicates that providing stable, responsive and nurturing relationships (attachment relationships) in the early years of life can prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of early life stress with lifelong benefits for learning, behaviour and health. Essentially, the role of the parent is one of being available, ready to respond when called upon, to encourage, perhaps to assist, but to intervene only when clearly necessary (Bowlby, 1988).