On infant attachment, relationships, experiences and the impact of Service life


Mother and babyI am continuing the theme of my last post, taken from my presentation to the SCSN Annual Conference, on The Impact on babies and young children of parental absence and return, mobility and disability. I am shifting my attention now to attachment, early childhood development and the significance of relationships and experiences.

We should never lose sight of the fact that our genetic inheritance is all about survival, and that’s just as important for new born babies as it is for the adult hunter.Robert Winston, Human Instinct, 2002

Soon after birth, babies are able to imitate expressions in their constant communication with significant adults. This is all essential to the process of forming attachments, which begins around the age of six months. Research tells us that babies are also adept at recognising facial expressions almost as competently as adults, and so, a mother’s anxiety, or fear, or anger, registers in a young baby at an early age.

There is a wonderful report today on the BBC news site from Birkbeck College in London on the significance of a baby’s smiles and laughter, as part of that communication process. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-24553877

Communication skills in babies

Infants communicate with other people by a multi-channel system of senses and expressions – linking the baby’s brain activities to those of the adult, expressed in touches, vocalisation, face expressions and gestures.

Young babies are hard-wired to form the attachments essential to their survival, but what happens when the mother is unable to respond, is consumed by grief, or depression, or lost in relationship battles and tensions with the partner facing deployment or worn weary by the demands of caring for an injured partner?

The rewards and challenges of Service life

Service life affords many remarkable opportunities and life-enhancing skills and experiences for those members of our British Armed Forces. Yet the flip side of the coin is that, correspondingly, it presents challenges – for those left behind, for the families of those serving soldiers, for the communities serving the needs of forces families.

It would be foolish to think that parental low mood state does not impact on a baby’s brain activity and development, but there is much still to learn about the long-term outcomes of a problematic childhood.

Nevertheless, there is an emerging body of evidence-based research to suggest that Service Life presents some challenging risk factors. Much of that research is based in the United States, but there is a growing body of research that has originated from the UK or has been the result of collaborations between the UK and US. In addition, some excellent business analysis of the difficulties facing Service Families have been published more recently.

I would like to mention here two reports I have read with a high regard –

Matt Fossey’s Unsung Heroes: Developing a better understanding of the emotional support needs of service families (May 2012) and Help for Heroes Annual Report 2012, which has a somewhat misleading title, I fear, giving so much more than the usual company AR information – an absolute wealth of good practice, policy and inspirational material.

Help for Heroes

Here is a link to Matt Fossey’s report  – http://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/publications/unsung_heroes.aspx?ID=649


Vulnerable Mothers and Vulnerable Infants

One in ten first time mothers experiences post-natal depression. Difficulties occur when the depressed mother is unable to be sensitive to a baby’s emotional as well as care needs. Evidence suggests girls come out of this better than boys, with girls at age five, cared for by mothers suffering depression, more withdrawn and unhappy at age five  – our school starting age in the UK  – but boys have the added burden of suffering intellectually, including the potential for behavioural problems and hyper-activity.

Children of depressed parents are known to have a greater propensity to depression in later life. What a bleak outlook from those first formative months and years.

To build a picture of where lies our risk and resilience, (what factors may be adverse and what factors may be protective) I have suggested the following

Risk factors –

  • First time mothers
  • Partners working extra hours in the build up to deployment
  • Partners on first deployments
  • Difficult babies
  • Mothers with babies under two years
  • Boys
  • Socially isolated mothers
  • Families on remote or isolated military bases
  • Unexpected or prolonged stress
  • Insecure family context

Resilience factors

  • Experienced mothers
  • Partners on second or subsequent deployment
  • Strong family and friend support networks
  • Effective community support
  • Easy babies
  • Girls
  • Anticipated and planned for challenges
  • Secure family context

Targeted support

In a world of finite resources and pressure on existing funding, it seems to me there is a pressing need for targeted support for those identified more vulnerable mothers and children – our most disadvantaged groups of Service families.

My visits to community centres meeting military and civilian mothers and their children has given an understanding of how bases are categorised according to the extent and attractiveness of their facilities and their location – proximity to shops and towns, public transport and so forth.

So, in my risk factors, socially isolated may encompass all those mothers living alone with their children while their partners are working increased hours leading up to deployment, irregular hours, or are absent through deployment, on bases that fall into categories of the most isolated, least well serviced by the local community.

At the SCSN Annual Conference I had an interesting discussion with an Educatonal Psychologist who has done extensive research and work with military families. In reality, a debate over whether we are saying Service families are a disadvantaged group of people, with additional or special needs, requiring extra funding and attention from education, health and social care services. That would not be deemed a good move by many. (I am paraphrasing so do excuse any inaccuracies).

No, I am not arguing that all Service families are a disadvantaged group, but that within Service families there are sub-sets who are more vulnerable to disadvantage and who require our special consideration to ensure we do not – in resolving one generation’s problems and needs – create as a by-product a second generation harmed by those endeavours.

As always, I am ending with words that cause me to ponder more on matters that concern. I have chosen the words of  Dwight D Eisenhower, (1896 – 1969), 34th President of the United States:


“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”  

Dwight D. Eisenhower

In my next post, I shall be looking at the impact of deployment, mobility and disability, and a commonality of concerns.

As always, if this post interests you, please do add a comment or make contact via email – heather@hmstack.com. I am keen to have opportunities to share my presentation in other contexts, and to be part of that wider debate on the needs of service children and their families.


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