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Tests to reveal ASBO babies 28th September 2006
Key quote "If the mother is unresponsive to the infant or her behaviour is repeatedly frightening to the infant, then there is a risk that the brain networks that help the child to deal with stress become unbalanced and that has been shown to lead to both mental health and other types of health problems in later life" - Dr Bjarne Holmes, the psychologist who is leading the research
Story in full A TEN-minute test which identifies babies at risk of developing antisocial behaviour has been created by Scottish scientists.
The psychological test, designed for women with children under six months of age, will enable health workers to pick out mothers who are failing to bond properly with their child.
International studies have shown that such babies are at significantly increased risk of having borderline personality disorder as teenagers.
Researchers said the tests would enable health workers to target mothers who needed more support. But children's groups were cautious of using any test that could "stigmatise" young mothers.
The tests, developed by the Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory at Heriot-Watt University and funded by the Scottish Executive's Centre for Integrated Healthcare Research, come amid increasing pressure on ministers to tackle antisocial behaviour.
The research is broadly in line with an announcement by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, stating families in deprived areas who are more likely to face problems should be identified earlier and given support - a move quickly labelled as "baby ASBOs".
The Scottish researchers are to pilot the tests with 70 mothers in deprived areas in Fife in November. The next step in the research is to look at the most successful interventions for mothers with problems.
Eventually it is hoped the results will be used by health visitors, most likely in the highest 20 per cent of deprived areas.
The new test works in two stages: first, the mother is given a ten-minute psychological questionnaire on her own personality to assess how she will relate to her own child.
If mothers are judged to be at risk then videotaping her with her child can be the next stage. Psychologists then "code" the tape to assess the health of the relationship.
Dr Bjarne Holmes, the psychologist who is leading the research, said a child's mind is developing in the first 18 months of life but becomes more fixed after the age of two, and so it is essential to ensure the mother develops a healthy relationship.
"At such an important developmental time, a mother or caregiver can buffer the negative effects of adversity on the infant by providing consistent, loving and nurturing care and being responsive to the infant in times of need," he said.
"If the mother is unresponsive to the infant or her behaviour is repeatedly frightening to the infant, then there is a risk that the brain networks that help the child to deal with stress become unbalanced and that has been shown to lead to both mental health and other types of health problems in later life."
Dr Holmes said there are already intervention programmes, but there has been no standard test for easily identifying which families are most at need until now. With government plans to divert more money to the families who need support the most, he said a test would significantly help direct resources to those families.
"We believe that money spent by Scottish society early in the life of some mothers and infants will not only benefit the future of those families, but will benefit our society at large through a healthier and happier public," he said. "Our long-term vision for this research in Scotland is to be able to look back 40 years from now and say that we were able to make a difference in altering the developmental pathways of some families."
However, Dr Holmes emphasised the point was not to blame parents, but to provide support.
John Watson, the policy officer for the charity Barnardo's Scotland, welcomed research on developing interventions, but warned against labelling children. "Many families experience difficulties at some stage but what they need is help, understanding and encouragement rather than being seen as a problem or being condemned," he said.
Ruth Howard, a post-natal tutor with the National Childbirth Trust, was wary of any test in the first six months in case of stigmatising mothers. "I have a slight worry about tools of this kind if it adds to feelings of guilt. You cannot change the fact you did not bond with your child. If that is what you felt, then that is what you felt and thinking about the future effects on your child can make it even harder."
However, Ms Howard did support a test if intervention and support is offered straightaway.
Belinda Phipps, the chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust, said mothers should not be made to feel guilty if they were having problems bonding with their baby.
"At the moment mothers do not have to accept any tests on themselves or their babies and that must stay the case if this new test is introduced," she added.
Kenny MacAskill, an SNP MSP, backed the test as long as it is carried out by social workers and followed up by support. "Parenting is a hard job, especially for a single parent, and anything that can be done to help is sensible as long as it does not stigmatise parents but helps them," he said.
The Scottish Executive would not comment on the research but said it already supported intervention at an early stage to stop antisocial behaviour.
Test for mothers
THE initial stage of the test is a questionnaire for the mother on her relationships with other people. It will include questions on whether she feels valued in relationships or finds it easy to trust people in order to assess the relationship she may develop with the child.
If the mother is deemed to be at risk, video may be used to record the interaction between mother and child, which can be "coded" by psychologists to assess the relationship.
Examples of early maternal behaviours that can lead to problems later include:
• Hostile behaviours towards the infant (mocking or teasing).
• Pulling by the wrist.
• Failing to comfort a distressed infant.
• Being frightened by the infant.
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