If no one hears, if no one comes

What have we learned from years of debate and research about what children need for stable mental health, general wellbeing and optimal development?

An infant crying in the night; an infant crying for the light; and with no language but a cry. (Alfred Tennyson, 1850)

Infants have feelings and their behaviours have meaningTennyson grasped this truth a century and a half ago that we are finally starting to understand today. Did we ever know what children needed in order to grow up mentally healthy? At the turn of the 20th century Sigmund Freud documented the damage that can occur at the age of around two years as infants gain confidence in their ability to command the world. Freud warned that shaming and put-down responses to confident little minds can have long-term damaging effects.

In the latter half of the 20th century, John Bowlby alerted us to the damage that can occur in absence of sensitive responsiveness in an infant’s life. Bowlby was working with children separated from their mothers and/or fathers during and after World War Two, and reported the profound effect of this loss on infants aged as young as six months. For Bowlby, this underlined the fundamental importance of the continued presence of the person who cared for an infant during the first six months of his or her life – the infant’s attachment figure.

In 2008, the celebrated speakers at the 11th World Congress of the World Association for Infant Mental Health suggested, ‘We now know enough. We must promote what is needed for infant mental health.’

Mentalising mothers

A mother who understands both her own and her child’s negative mental state, and accepts and soothes the child, is a mother with the capacity for mentalising. The brains of children with mothers who mentalise develop differently from those children who have to hide their fear or anger, and never have it named, explained or regulated. The rhythms of arousal and soothing somehow become part of the infant’s experience and confer later capacity to modulate internal feelings. These children also grow in turn to be mentalising mothers with their own children.

For an infant’s mental health, the infant must:

experience his/her arousal
be able to display the discomfort
have the discomfort recognised
receive soothing
be made to feel safe.

Helping mothers who are not attuned

The intergenerational nature of abuse and neglect is, sadly, well documented. However, other less extreme situational factors such as illness, depression or poverty intervene to disrupt a mother’s attuned responsiveness.

Specific psychotherapies address problems in the infant-mother relationship. Other programs have been developed for use where there is no serious disadvantage in the environment and the mother is able and willing to learn. Many of these are implemented in agencies by staff trying to assist mothers and young children when problems have been observed in a child’s behaviour and thought to be related to attachment issues.

The infant has a mind

Infants have at birth a more elaborate signaling system than we previously believed, communicating their mental and bodily state through many types of cries, body movements, smiles and gurgles. When we continuously fail to respond to an infant’s signals for comfort, proximity and nurturance, the infant develops more extreme patterns of behaviour. These insecure patterns are accompanied by loss of trust in the world, loss of capacity to explore the world, loss of opportunity to experience a full range of emotions, and failure to feel at the centre of someone’s universe. Lack of attuned responsiveness prevents optimal development.

Studies suggest that children who typically have their experiences reflected upon and mirrored by their attuned and responsive Attachment Figures, who have the capacity to mentalise, will develop their own mentalising skills. These children are more likely to be competent in conversation and in mental development, and to grow into mentally and emotionally stable adults.

Lynn Priddis
President of the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health Inc. (AAIMHI)
Senior Lecturer Psychology,
Curtin University of Technology


Ainsworth, Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation: Anger and anxiety (Vol. 2). London: Random House.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss: Sadness and depression (Vol. 3). London: Random House.

Emde, R. N. (August 2008). Perspectives on Mental Health. World Association for Infant Mental Health (WAIMH) Precongress Symposium 1, Yokohama, Japan.

Perry, D. B. (2002).Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: What childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture. Brain and Mind, 3, 79-100. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Retrieved 3 May 2010, from www.childTrauma.org.

Slade, A. (2005). Parental reflective functioning: An introduction. Attachment & Human Development, 7(3), 269-281.

Tennyson, A. (1850): In memorium, liv.

If no one hears, if no one comes by Lynn Priddis featured in Every Child Vol. 16 No. 2—Wellbeing. Click here to purchase your copy today!