A Sneaky Peek into the Perinatal Journey
An interview with our new columnist, a psychologist and a mother, Dr. Alessandra Biaggi
Ahead of the launch of the new column “The Perinatal Journey - Walking through the first years of life” on Inspire the Mind, I sat down with its creator, Dr. Alessandra Biaggi, to learn more about it.
I first met Alessandra a few years ago, when she worked as part of the perinatal (the time between pregnancy and the first year of life) psychiatry research team at King’s College London, and we shared a passion for the importance of early life experience in child development.
“I've always been interested in the perinatal period and in particular, child development. I developed these interests when I was at the university, so that was a long time ago” she says, “and since then, I’ve always worked with parents and children.”
Dr. Biaggi is a Research Psychologist who recently became a mum herself, which inspired and motivated her to start this column.
"When I myself became a mother, I thought I knew many things related to this period (perinatal), but I realized that there were some things I did not know about, and that this information was not easy to find. Parents often rely on online information, which can be great but often it isn’t evidence-based and there is a risk then that they get the wrong information. So, I thought it would be helpful if I created an evidence-based column that would help parents access what they need to know."
She gives us a glimpse of the future content of the column, which will "have a strong focus on mental health – of mothers, fathers, and babies”, but also cover a wide range of topics related to parenthood and baby development, such as transition to parenthood and infant nutrition and sleep. She wants to challenge the unrealistic expectations that surround the transition to parenthood in order to take the pressure off of parents. “We really need to learn to practice some self-compassion… the caregiving role is demanding and requires effort.”, she comments.
This brings us to the topic of parenting. I ask her what the hallmarks of good parenting are, and two key terms come up, “sensitive” and “good enough” parenting.
“Each baby comes with lots of needs that ought to be met. They communicate these needs in ways they can, which is often, but not only, by crying. It might be that the baby is overstimulated or understimulated. It might be that they need some physical comfort, they’re hungry, or need sleep, have a dirty nappy and so on. And the role of a caregiver is to listen to this communication and try and make sense of it because it's not always straightforward. And then, of course, to respond to the baby. This isn’t always easy and means adjusting the behaviour until eventually, the infant feels happy, secure, and satisfied.”
She goes on to explain the concept of “good enough parenting” as understanding that mistakes will happen and that “Babies don't really need perfect parents, but they need parents that try their best. It only becomes a cause for concern when parents repeatedly fail to respond sensitively to their babies”.
I ask her about the long-term impact that parent-infant interaction can have on a child, and later, an adult. Alessandra says that parenting is like building a lens which influences how the child will see the world around them, how they interact with the environment, and manage emotions and stress. She talks more about "good enough parenting" and how it helps the baby develop cognitive and social competence in the future, minimising the risk for developing problems at school or psychopathology during lifetime.
“The early relationships are taken in, internalised, by a child, and create some sort of “imprinting” in the baby's brain, which functions as a guide on how to be in the years to come. Obviously, this is not deterministic, so there will be lots of other factors that will come about and affect the child’s development including genetic predispositions, but certainly, the early experience plays an important role.”
She also stresses that fathers have an important role in infant development and that luckily, there has been increasingly more interest in the topic.
“Interactions with fathers usually tend to be more physical, tend to involve more active play, and are more stimulating compared to interactions with mothers, and this is really important because it promotes the development of competencies like attention, risk-taking, exploration of the environment, and ability to problem-solve, which are all important aspects for the child’s development.
So, I think the role of the father is key, not to mention the fact that it has an indirect impact by supporting the mother. But this is another chapter”, she says smiling, “I will need to do an article only on fathers!”
Before we conclude, I am curious about an earlier statement about her concern for when parents repeatedly fail to respond sensitively to their babies. And I wonder, can this be rectified at a later stage?
She nods and says that our internal model – the lens created in early childhood – can change when we are older. “One such way is, for example, through psychotherapy. One of the mechanisms of psychotherapy is really to recreate a sensitive and positive relationship with the therapist who will help you and will support you in a way that, perhaps, your parents didn't. Through that positive relationship, it is possible to change the way of relating to others. I think a similar process can happen through other positive relationships in life”.
She concludes by saying that it is really important to become aware of any negative dynamics we might we find ourselves in when relating with others; and from then, we can make decisions to do something about it.
Raising awareness, whether about your own way of relating as an adult, how you were parented or how you are parenting your child, is certainly a step in the right direction, and I am confident that this column will achieve just that.
So, keep an eye out for the first article on 23rd of March 2023! I will.