Communicating with your baby when you’re experiencing mental health difficulties

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help parents to understand how mental illness can impact parenting and learn practical strategies to help maintain a strong relationship between parents and children. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.

Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

How you communicate with your baby is important, particularly when you’re unwell. This resource aims to help you understand how to communicate and connect with your infant when you’re experiencing the symptoms of mental illness.

While you don’t need to explain your mental health difficulties to your baby, you may find their responses also change when you’re struggling. They may become more unsettled or ‘fussy’. Considering how your symptoms can influence your behaviour, facial expressions and tone of voice is helpful as these are the changes that your baby will notice.

Are your responses more irritable than usual? Is your tone of voice flat or perhaps angry? It can be difficult to monitor these things when you’re struggling, so it’s helpful to prepare for these moments. When you’re feeling well, take some time to reflect on the symptoms you experience, the behaviours that your baby sees and hears, and how these might affect how your baby feels. You might find it useful to talk about this with a partner, friend or your GP.

To learn more about the role of a GP, watch this video.

Babies might not understand everything you say, but they are very sensitive and responsive to your emotions and your tone of voice.

Understanding what your baby experiences and notices

As a parent, it can be very challenging to think about how your baby might view what is happening. You might notice that when you’re struggling with your moods and emotions, your baby’s responses may also change.

Take some time to listen and watch how your baby communicates with you. If you’re having any trouble reading your baby’s signals or understanding how they are communicating with you, ask a trusted friend for help or talk to your GP. If you’re not already seeing a psychologist or counsellor it might also be useful to talk your GP or another support person about how mental illness can affect parenting.

Parental mental illness and child development

It can also be tricky for parents to identify what is ‘normal’ infant development and what may be a result of your own mental health difficulties. This uncertainty can make it hard to know when to seek support from family, friends or a qualified practitioner. If you have ongoing concerns, don’t hesitate to contact your GP – they will work with you to develop strategies to help you and your infant or connect you with further professional supports.

Ways to connect with your baby

When you are with your baby, it is important to find ways to connect with them as it helps them to feel nurtured and secure. Here are some things you can do anytime to help build that connection:

  • Smile when you look at your baby. This lets them know that you care.
  • Maintain eye contact with your baby until they look away. From approximately three months of age, babies will make eye contact with you. This will help strengthen your bond and help them to feel secure. When they look away, it’s their way of telling you they may need a rest from interaction for now or that they are ready to explore something new.
  • Hold your baby close and cuddle them. This can reduce stress levels for both you and your baby.
  • Gently rock your baby and talk in a soothing voice when they’re upset. A warm tone of voice helps your baby to feel calm and safe. Try using a sing-song voice when you speak to them.
  • Smile and nod when your baby makes sounds. This is the beginning of communication between you and your baby and helps with the bonding process.
  • Encourage your baby’s little noises by repeating their sounds back to them when they finish their ‘sentence’, to create your own two-way ‘conversation’.

If you would like more information on communicating with your baby, the Raising Children Network is a great place to start. There are also parent helplines available in each state and territory.

It’s important to find ways to connect with your baby to help them feel nurtured and secure.

How to keep calm when your baby is crying

It’s inevitable that your infant will cry – and sometimes it can be hard to understand what they are trying to tell us or the cause of their distress. The important thing to remember is that when your baby is upset, they will be looking for you to respond.

Many parents find it hard to hear a distressed or crying baby as it often increases their own stress. It’s normal to feel stressed when babies cry, but it can be hard to manage these feelings, especially when you’re experiencing mental health difficulties.

When this happens take a moment to try and manage your emotions before soothing your upset baby. You can try:

  • taking some slow, deep breaths
  • putting on some soothing music; or
  • putting your baby in a safe place such as their cot or crib and taking a few minutes to calm yourself.

If you’re feeling unwell or you find yourself getting agitated, ask a friend or family member to try and settle your baby while you have a lie down or take a walk around the block.

It’s normal to not always understand what your baby needs. When you’re unwell yourself, you may find it helpful to ask family or friends to step in until you feel able to manage. Remember, there is strength in knowing when you need a break.

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