Case study

Learning to read your baby's mind is good for their development

Parents’ ‘mind-mindedness' – the ability to ‘tune in’ to their young child’s thoughts and feelings – predicts wide-ranging positive aspects of children’s development, particularly in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The issue

Mind-mindedness was first defined by Professor Elizabeth Meins as parents’ ability to treat their young children as individuals with minds of their own, and is measured in terms of a parent’s ability to comment appropriately on their baby’s thoughts and feelings during parent–baby interaction. 

Extensive research has shown that mind-mindedness represents optimal parent­–baby interaction. Parents’ mind-mindedness in the first year of life also predicts wide-ranging positive aspects of children’s development, such as secure parent–child attachment and superior social and cognitive skills. In children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, mothers’ early mind-mindedness acts as a protective factor against behavioural difficulties in the early school years and poorer educational attainment in national assessment tests (SATs) at ages 7 and 11. Encouraging parents to be mind-minded should result in long-term positive effects on a child’s development.   

With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, Professor Meins and her team have been investigating and designing practical ways to teach parents how to be more mind-minded.

The research

The team at York produced a programme of activities that can be incorporated into parents’ daily routines to encourage mind-mindedness.The programme or its individual components can be delivered by midwives, health visitors, psychologists or social workers to individual parents or as part of group sessions.

The team also wanted to work directly with parents and caregivers. To help new parents become more mind-minded, they developed a website and smartphone app (BabyMind©). Every day, the app provides information on babies’ psychological development and prompts parents to reflect on what their baby is thinking or feeling. When interacting with their babies, mothers who had used the BabyMind© app were more mind-minded than a control group of mothers who had used a different parenting app.

In collaboration with Durham University, King’s College London and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Professor Meins has also designed a mind-mindedness intervention to help new mothers who have been hospitalised for severe mental illness. As part of standard hospital practice, when mothers were admitted to the specialist unit, they were filmed interacting with their babies for five minutes. The intervention involved showing the mother this interaction and asking her to imagine what her baby might be thinking or feeling at three specific moments in the film. This improved mothers’ mind-mindedness such that, when discharged, their mind-mindedness was no different from that of psychologically-well mums. 

The outcome

The range of tools and resources developed by York to facilitate mind-mindedness is benefiting parents and children across the UK and beyond. The researchers are training and supporting midwives, health visitors, mental health specialists, and social workers. 

The research is also informing national and regional policy decisions.  All practitioners in East Lothian Early Learning and Childcare now receive mind-mindedness training, and a report from the Early Intervention Foundation, supported by Public Health England and the Department for Education, highlighted mind-mindedness as a “factor which makes a difference” to children’s development.

A mind-minded approach in Early Learning and Childcare settings has the potential to transform the wellbeing of both children and practitioners.

East Lothian’s Early Years Specialist Educational Psychologist
Featured researcher

Elizabeth Meins

Professor Meins' main area of research focuses on caregivers’ ‘mind-mindedness’ and its role in predicting children’s development

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