About Infant Mental Health
Infant mental health has attracted increased interest all over the world. Over the last 25 years, research in infant development and child care, as well as clinical work with infants and preschool children, has flourished. We know that the most rapid rate of human brain development occurs between birth and three years and that the brain develops as described by Dr. Bruce Perry in a “use-dependant way.” This refers to the very important role of early experiences in the development of an infant’s brain.
Some of the first circuits the brain develops govern emotions. Beginning at two months of age, infants show distress and pleasure in response to the care they receive. These feelings become the emotions of joy, sadness, anger, surprise, and fear in the first year of life. Learning from their parents how to interact with others, toddlers and preschoolers develop the social emotions of empathy, pride, and shame. Infants learn in the first few years of life who they can trust and rely on for safety and protection. Attachments (relationships) are formed to their parents. Loving, consistent care helps babies develop primarily happy feelings and positive memories of their experiences with the world around them. These positive early experiences increase the capacity to handle stress in the future.
Infants born under severe distress, be it physical or emotional, risk developing mental health problems. Some may have developmental difficulties due to prematurity, exposure to drugs and alcohol during the pregnancy, severe medical illness, or severe developmental disorders like autism. Other infants come into the world with difficult temperaments. Still others have difficulties processing sensory information and therefore have problems settling into regular rhythms of feeding, sleeping, playing, and learning about the environment around them. It is not surprising that families would have difficulty providing appropriate care for these high needs infants.
Infants who are exposed to neglect or severe stressors like abuse cannot trust their world. Their experience is one of anxiety and fear, so they develop abnormal stress responses. These negative experiences can have long lasting and wide ranging effects on social and emotional development.
Problems in the relationship between the parents and the infant can result in feeding, sleeping, or behavioural difficulties. Such relationship problems can be caused by life events such as severe illness or loss, extreme poverty and deprivation, or a mental illness in the parents, such as depression. If the parent does not receive the right kind of support, these difficulties can make it hard for the parent to develop a relationship with the infant, in turn harming the infant’s ability to develop trusting relationships.
The field of infant mental health is devoted to infants from birth to 36 months of age and to their families. The work involves helping parents better understand and cope with their infant’s needs and behaviour. Community programs offer supports ranging from parent education and support groups to home visitation programs for infants and families with special needs. Clinical infant mental health services provide assessment and treatment for infants and their families. Often families come seeking help with a problem in their relationship with the infant, or a concern about the way their infant is developing or behaving.
Early detection and treatment are what infant mental health is all about. It is clear from clinical work with older children in the preschool and school age years that many of them had difficulties that were evident before the age of three. Early intervention gets critical support to parents when they need it most, and when it can make a difference to the child’s first impressions of the world and his/her response to it.
The CASA Infant and Preschool Services team has worked for the past 17 years to provide services for infants and preschool children in our community. The team helps families who bring their infants for assessment and treatment to recognize their strengths and develop an understanding of the problem. The therapists provide information about the development and the emotional needs of the child and help the parents find effective ways to improve the infant’s behaviour and their relationship. Parents are supported in their struggle with their own feelings. The team also works closely with other community professionals to support the child and family.
We have many challenges ahead of us as we work to improve the mental health of our children and families. It is so much better, in human and economic terms, to invest now by improving how we care for our youngest children. Research results and recommendations made by recognized experts in infant mental health provide us with an action plan.
- Help parents in the most important job of their lives by providing them with the vital information they need to raise healthy, secure children.
- Train pediatric healthcare providers to provide parents with information about their children’s emotional needs.
- Establish community-based parent support groups and home visiting programs to provide much needed support to exhausted and stressed parents.
- Establish and maintain high quality child care for all children in our province.
- Provide mental health services to all parents and infants who require this professional help.
- Educate those who make decisions about custody for infants and toddlers about the importance of enduring relationships in the first three years of life.
- Educate legislators about the importance of infant mental health to the role of public policy in its promotion and support.
Together, we can help nurture young minds and ensure that our children grow to their full potential.