This week, the World Association of Infant Mental Health (WA-IMH) is hosting a Week of Celebrating Babies. Infant Mental Health is a new phrase to many – so what does it mean?
WA-IMH’s mission promotes education, research, and study of the effects of mental, emotional and social development during infancy on later normal and psychopathological development through international and interdisciplinary cooperation, publications, affiliate associations, and through regional and biennial congresses devoted to scientific, educational, and clinical work with infants and their caregivers (www.waimh.org).
So where does sensory integration fit in to all this?
Sensory integration is the process whereby sensory information is taken in through the brain and processed, and determines output, that is, the baby’s reaction or behaviour. In infants, the behaviour we see starts on a very basic survival level, and is supported through the child’s interaction with their primary caregiver, usually their mother. If the mother-infant dyad is affected in some way and secure attachment is not present, then the behaviour that is observed is usually negative in one of three areas:
Infants with difficulties in these areas are often referred to occupational therapists, who might be asked to help. This assistance could be in the form of:
- Establishing an age appropriate eat-sleep-wake cycle
- Assisting with specific feeding difficulties
- Teaching the mother to facilitate self-soothing
- Promoting a variety of sensory experiences for the baby during their awake time.
So do infant mental health and sensory integration principles complement each other?
Well, yes they do! By facilitating better sensory registration and processing in the infant, the behaviour of a previously “difficult” baby will hopefully become more manageable. If the mother feels more in control, and that she is able to respond appropriately to her baby’s cues, she will feel empowered and closer to her baby, thus forming a better bond with her child. The reverse is also true. When a child presents with secure attachment to the mother, a good and safe environment is provided, the context in which the therapist can work with the mother and child on feeding, sleeping or soothing issues.
The therapist working primarily with infants focuses on two very important sensory systems:
- The tactile system (sense of touch)
- The vestibular system (sense of movement)
The baby’s sense of touch is vital for the development of Activities of Daily Living, including feeding, bathing and nappy changing. The tactile system is vital in the bonding process, self-calming, emotional stability and socialisation. Skills and functions such as rolling, crawling, eating, and mouthing objects all require an intact tactile system without over- or under-responsivity. When there is dysfunction in the sense of touch, it may present as tactile or proprioceptive defensiveness, hyposensitivities (under-reactivity) or poor praxis (due to poor tactile discrimination).
The vestibular sense registers movement of the infant’s body or changes in the position of the head. It allows for successful modulation of arousal and alertness, as well as paying attention to the environment. Through movement and coordination the infant learns to maintain posture, integrate reflexes and integrate movements. It is the vestibular system that provides the unconscious awareness of movements and position in space. Here we can see why children prone to allergies and middle ear infections are so often affected and have sensory integration difficulties later on.
The senses of taste, smell, hearing, vision and proprioception of course all have significant effects on the infant’s development.
In this week of celebrating babies, let’s think for a moment about the infants and toddlers in our lives. We are often so quick to label a baby’s personality as easy-going, friendly, fussy, difficult or strong-willed. What are often seen as personality traits might be much more physiologically based than we realise – based on the demands and reactivity of the child’s sensory systems, and within the context of the mother-infant dyad. Post a photo, send a message of support or share a quote to celebrate babies and the very special place they hold in our lives for such a short time.
If you would like to follow WA-IMH this week as they celebrate babies, have a look at their Facebook page on https://www.facebook.com/waimh.org/
[This post was written by Karen Powell, who has a special interest in sensory integration in the infant and toddler population, and is currently serving on SAISI’s board.]
References and Sources:
1. World Association of Infant Mental Health website www.waimh.org
2. Notes adapted from Infant Sensory Integration Training with Meg Faure