By Joanne Smith

CREATING equality and getting it right for every child are long-held aspirations in Scotland. And becoming the first country in the UK to directly incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law is no small feat in working towards this goal.

But to truly transform childhood in Scotland and to recognise and respect the rights of every child, it is imperative we start by addressing the needs of the very youngest in society. It is at this early stage of life that children are most vulnerable to harm. This is because they are at a critical stage in their development, completely dependent on adults for their care, and unable to voice their needs or seek support.

We know that when parents are overloaded by difficulties, coping with the needs of very young children can be a struggle and have a significant effect on their mental health and ability to care for their baby. Providing early support to families can help build positive relationships that prevent harm and, in turn, change life trajectories. However, from our research, we know that services which support children’s development through the parent-infant relationship are almost non-existent in Scotland. And the landscape of family support services has been eroded by reduced budgets and short-term funding.

To transform therapeutic family support from crisis management to primary prevention, as set out as a key foundation by the Independent Care Review, investment in universal early years services is essential, as well as a reorganisation of the mental health budget. Research shows that 50 per cent of mental health problems are established by the age of 14, yet only six per cent of the budget is spent on children. National spend on infant mental health is negligible despite overwhelming evidence that intervention at this critical stage in life is the most efficient and cost-effective way of transforming outcomes for children.

Sadly, there are many children in Scotland who do not experience stable and nurturing care at the start of their lives and some are subjected to maltreatment. Last year more than a third of children coming into the care system were younger than five years old. To prevent lasting harm for these children, it is vital they receive consistent and positive care as quickly as possible. We are hopeful that the Scottish Government’s pledge to undertake a review of the Children’s Hearings System is a positive first step. We believe that what is required is an overhaul of justice processes to take account of the developmental needs of very young children. There is growing recognition that significant delay has a detrimental impact on the cognitive and emotional development of an infant, leading to adverse outcomes during its life.

Today, as we mark Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, we urge the Scottish Government to prioritise infant mental health in national budget setting. With this investment and by applying the best available evidence on child development, together we can prevent or mitigate the consequences of early adversity. A rights-respecting nation would settle for nothing less.

Joanne Smith is Policy and Public Affairs Manager for NSPCC Scotland