June 19, 2024
  • A new government campaign aims to support parents in nurturing their bond with their baby
  • New research highlights many parents are unaware of the link between their baby’s good mental health and early childhood development
  • Building close relationships in this critical period of social and emotional development reduces the likelihood of mental health difficulties throughout their lives

A new government campaign – Start for Life’s ‘if they could tell you’ – has launched to support parents to help build secure bonds to help nurture their baby’s future mental health, along with easy-to-follow guidance on the Start for Life website.

The campaign aims to highlight that babies’ expressions, reactions, noises and cries are the way they communicate their needs and feelings to parents which in some cases can be an indication of their mental wellbeing.

We want to help parents and carers learn how to interpret these cues so they can find the best way to meet their baby’s needs.

A baby’s brain is making one million neural connections every second, making pregnancy and the first 2 years so important for their healthy development. These connections are formed as a result of the interaction between parents and their babies, laying the foundations for their physical and emotional wellbeing, now and in future. Secure relationships with parents and carers positively impacts child development outcomes and reduces the likelihood of mental health difficulties.

Minister for Public Health, Start for Life and Primary Care, Dame Andrea Leadsom, said: 

We are committed to giving every baby the best start in life, and promoting that vital secure attachment between babies and their parents in the 1,001 critical days from pregnancy to 2 years old is crucial for their future wellbeing.

Speaking with parents across the country, I’ve heard first-hand that they need more support around how to better build those connections. Parents can access a range of support and advice, in person via family hubs and on the Start for Life website.

We are also launching new guidance for frontline practitioners, aimed at helping them to start conversations with parents about building their relationship with their baby.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, said:

A strong, loving connection between parents or carers and their baby can play a significant role in developing the brain and protecting their mental health as they grow up.

This campaign will make it easier for parents and carers to interpret the way their baby is communicating with them and understand how best to meet their baby’s needs.

Raising a baby is not easy and I hope that new NHS trusted advice provided through the campaign will be a helpful source of information and support to parents and carers.

New guidance for frontline practitioners will also help start conversations with parents and carers to explore their relationship with their baby, in order to provide support.

The early years are a crucial time for the development of a child’s brain. Over a third (41%) of parents of under 2s in England are unaware that mental health starts to impact a child’s development before they are 2.

While most parents (95%) feel confident in supporting their baby’s emotional and social development, more than two-thirds (73%) of parents in the survey indicated they would welcome support in nurturing their connection with their baby further.  

The new survey from Censuswide, which explored parents’ understanding of building a positive connection with their baby, also found that over half (53%) of parents believe that parenting advice they received in their baby’s early life, such as letting the baby ‘cry it out’ (53%) and limiting physical affection (52%) to avoid the baby becoming clingy was outdated, with almost a third (31%) of parents feeling guilty for following this advice when their baby’s cues indicated otherwise.

Child development expert, Dr Amanda Gummer, said:

Building a strong connection with your baby from pregnancy onwards helps to foster a sense of love and security, laying the foundations for their future wellbeing and mental health.

Tips for parents

Dr Gummer has these tips for parents to help interpret cues and build strong connections with your baby.  

Mirror your baby’s reactions and emotions

Babies need you to help them learn about themselves and the world around them. Your baby might be telling you they’re ready to play if they’re smiling or cooing. You can mirror your baby’s reactions and emotions – such as smiling back if they have bright eyes – as this shows them that it’s OK to express those emotions. 

Comfort your baby when they are crying

It’s important to respond to their cries, as well as their smiles, with love and reassurance. If your baby is crying, try soothing them with gentle rocking, speaking softly, or singing to them.

Remember, you cannot ‘spoil’ a baby with too many cuddles and it does not make them clingy. Babies will cry for different lengths and at different times, so try not to compare your baby to others. Babies also cry for different reasons; pain cries can be different to hunger or tired cries so try to understand what they’re telling you to help you respond appropriately. Looking after yourself is also really important and will help you to comfort your baby’s cries. 

Enjoy playing face-to-face with your baby in everyday moments

The more you cuddle, look at and play face-to-face with your baby, the more secure they’ll feel, and the more independent they’ll become. In time, they will feel confident that you will be there for them. This can be as simple as saying what they do and name what they see, as you’re going about your routine.

Let your baby take breaks when they need them (and the same goes for you!)

Your baby’s body language, facial expressions, noises and cries are their ways of telling you what they need. Sometimes they might be telling you they just need a break. Show them that it’s ok if they need to try something different, or just to rest. Remember to also take care of yourself, and take a moment when needed, so you’re ready to understand and respond to your baby’s cues.

Find further information and support on the family hubs website.

Background information

Start for Life is a national programme delivering trusted NHS advice and guidance on topics such as pregnancy, infant feeding and early child development.

Launched in August 2022, a £300 million family hubs and Start for Life programme is delivering a step change in outcomes for babies, children, and their parents and carers in 75 local authorities in England. The programme is set to run until March 2025 and is overseen jointly by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

A practitioner’s guide to starting conversations about parent-infant relationships provides conversation prompts for frontline practitioners to explore a parent or carer’s relationship with their baby and a 3-step framework to help identify support needs.

The research was conducted by Censuswide, among a sample of 2,006 parents (17 plus) of under 2 year olds in England. The data was collected between 23 February and 1 March 2024. Censuswide abides by and employs members of the Market Research Society (MRS) and follows the MRS code of conduct and ESOMAR principles. Censuswide is also a member of the British Polling Council.

The campaign is part of the government’s £1 billion investment to ensure every child gets the best possible start in life

This includes around £300 million for Start for Life and family hubs in 75 local authorities across England, making it easier for families in those areas to access the vital services they need, and helping to improve health and education outcomes. This includes £100 million for bespoke perinatal mental health and parent-infant relationship support, which is being used to promote positive early relationships and good mental wellbeing for babies and their families. Read more in DfE’s blog: family hubs – local support and advice for children and their families.

We have taken significant action to improve children’s health in the early years. This includes reducing sugar in children’s foods, supporting healthy diets for families from lower income households through schemes like Healthy Start and investing record amounts into children and young people’s mental health services.

We are also improving children’s oral health through our plan to recover and reform NHS dentistry and continue to provide one of the most extensive immunisation programmes in the world, with our vaccine confidence among the highest globally.


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