Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Effects of Trauma on Infant Development

Thank you to our Guest Blogger Dr. Karen W Malm, PhD., Licensed Psychologist, for contributing this post!

I can remember when I started working with preschoolers back in the early 1980's and the general belief of the psychiatric community was that trauma or abuse in children that young had no real long-term effects. Children could get over those issues readily and could move forward. Infant mental health did not even exist and the concept that an infant would have mental health issues was far-fetched. When Lenore Terr wrote her groundbreaking book in 1992, Too Scared to Cry, she described how psychic trauma affects young children across the lifespan. With the discoveries in the neurosciences, we can now look at how infant brain development is impacted by learning and experience and can see how trauma can impact infants and their long term mental health.
We know infants are not passively experiencing their world, but their neurons are actively making connections and growing into neural pathways. When an infant cries and is upset, he or she is trying to communicate a need for help. In a calm mother with good parenting skills, she takes the infant and swaddles him or her closely which helps control his or her limbs over which the infant has no motor control. Then she holds him or her close to her chest where her calm heart beat can help calm the baby’s heart rate and her steady breathing can help calm the baby’s breathing, and her soft words tell the baby, “shh, there, there, you’ll be fine.” This experience goes right to his or her brain and the neural connections to learn self-calming are made. 

As adults, when we hit our head, somewhere in our brains is that soft voice, “shh, there, there,” which triggers our ability to self-calm. In a home with trauma, such as with domestic violence, the mother is not able to engage in these self-calming behaviors. Her own heart rate might be beating rapidly, her breath might be shallow and rapid, and she is struggling to keep her composure and is unable to calm the infant. The infant not only does not get calmed, but also may get more stimulated and the neurons get short-circuited with over-stimulation. Replay this scene multiple times and those neurons for regulating emotions get short-circuited as well. Infants in these trauma environments end up with difficulty sleeping, feeding problems, and are hard to soothe. They may have difficulty with eye to eye gazing and being comforted by others. With neural networking, we can see that with ongoing reinforcement of these neural pathways, an infant could “learn” these habits. This would case long-term mental health issues and difficulty with regulating emotions later in life.

As mental health experts in the field of infant mental health, our interventions involve re-teaching these self-calming skills. This involves working with the mother and helping her learn how to be a calming person who can provide safety and nurturing to her infant. She needs to learn to use her own calm body to provide a model for her infant’s sensory system and developing brain. By making new neural connections, the infant can start the process of learning to self-regulate and self-calm; a healthy step towards positive mental health.

Here is a great video to supplement this article!


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