Seeing the world through babies’ eyes

Gill Holden from the National Children’s Bureau and Zakra Yasin from Better Start Bradford describe a baby’s perspective on how Covid-19 has impacted the infant-parent relationship.

Gill Holden

To mark Infant Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, Better Start Bradford led a week-long programme of activities. To launch the week, Better Start Bradford hosted an inspirational webinar with renowned research scientist Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, who spoke on the topic of “seeing the world through babies’ eyes” and the impact of Covid-19 on the infant-parent relationship.

Suzanne opened her presentation with an analogy. She sees the current world pandemic as giving insights into what life is like for a baby: so much is unknown and therefore often overwhelming. Connection creates a path of safety through all that uncertainty.

Zakra Yasin

The participants were treated to a film clip of a father interacting with his baby. The clip, originally posted by ‘The Dad Gang’, has been shared widely on social media over the last few weeks.

It shows a baby lying on a nappy change mat, interacting with his dad who is speaking, singing and moving to a fast-paced rhythm. The baby is clearly tuned into and responsive to his dad’s interaction.

Suzanne describes this as the two of them engaged in creating a spontaneous ‘jazz jam session’. Analysing this 41-second clip frame by frame, Suzanne has argued that this video is so much more than the ‘cute!’ reaction it received on social media. If you look closely, it illustrates her key message:

  • Babies are born communicative
  • They read people respond and make emotional connections
  • The connection they feel with others shapes their brain development.

This helps us see the impacts of lockdown. Society suffers when we do not feel connected. That’s Suzanne’s message. Connection is key to building trust and underpins mental health. Babies suffer when they do not feel connected. Simple, positive moments of interaction and interconnection bring joy, and that joy shapes their brain development. Repeated moments of joy lead the baby to understand that people are a source of joy and can be trusted. Resilience is built from a feeling of belonging.

Suzanne pushed attendees to have the courage to consider the corollary to this insight: repeated moments of fear and anxiety lead a baby to believe that people are not trustworthy. That prediction becomes built into their brain and their resilience is more fragile. Suzanne used this insight to re-emphasise her point: a robust sense of belonging comes from a child knowing that all their feelings are acceptable. Knowing that you are not left alone with tough feelings is what builds emotional resilience.

In a brief Q&A session, the topic of ‘parenting education’ was discussed. The starting point for the majority of parent education is ‘teaching parents what they should be doing’. Frequently this leads parents to develop a sense of being judged or feeling that they’re not doing a great job. Suzanne “invites parents to step forward in curiosity” aiming to increase their fascination and wonder of babies, giving a deeper connection, the heart of good infant mental health and an effective boost to parent’s mental health too.

Babies make sense of what goes on around them through a series of connections/disconnections to the people in their world. We need to give people information that helps them to wonder about babies and step into their experience with babies with curiosity. This will lead to deeper, more meaningful connections.

Suzanne raised the question of how we get this vital information across to pregnant mums. We need to do that without scaring them, making them feel guilty or raising anxiety. This is a challenge in today’s world because parents are often made, by ‘parenting education’, to feel anxious about how they could ‘get it wrong’. So delivering messages in a tone that helps to increase parents’ confidence and curiosity is essential.

Better Start Bradford’s key message from the webinar is that we need to build trust, joy, and resilience. Here are Suzanne’s top tips:

  • Laugh - as much as you can
  • Comfort – whenever your baby needs it
  • Get curious – because babies thrive when parents have time for curiosity.

If we slow down and experience the world through babies’ eyes, we always see there is more to marvel at.

The recording of the webinar is available here.

Gill Holden is Principal Officer at the National Children’s Bureau’s Early Childhood Unit, and Zakra Yasin is Workforce Development Manager at Better Start Bradford.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

Sign-up to join our mailing list.