10 Things You Should Know About Infant Mental Health

1) What is Infant Mental Health?

The foundations of all domains of human development are laid in the first several years of life. Basic to healthy development are the capacities to love, to feel, to develop a sense of self, and to adapt to one’s environment. Infant mental health is the social and emotional well-being of the very young child in the context of family relationships, beginning at birth and extending through the preschool years.

2) Why do we study, research and promote Infant Mental Health?

Young children are often among the most helpless, neglected subgroups of society. In the past 50 years, researchers have found that attending to young children promotes more fully functioning older children, teens and adults. As a body of professionals studying, researching and helping families with very young children, the Infant Mental Health field is wholistic, family-oriented, and multidisciplinary, involving social services, mental health and health professionals, educators and policy-makers.

3) What are the goals of Infant Mental Health?

The goals of the Infant Mental Health field are to promote emotional well-being in young children and their families, to reduce risk factors, and to prevent and/or ameliorate emotional problems. Research, advocacy, public education and improved policy are also important goals.

4) How can babies have emotional problems?

Depression can be observed in the first 2-3 months of life, as can attachment disorders, problems with regulation of behavior and emotions, and other developmental difficulties. Risk factors have been identified, developmental pathways are much better understood, and methods to identify children at risk are continually being improved.

5) Is there treatment for very young children who experience emotional problems?

Yes. Treatment most often involves working with parents and babies together, emphasizing relationship, interaction, emotions and knowledge of babies’ needs. Home visiting programs, attachment-focused approaches, infant-parent psychotherapy, psychoeducational and family support services are among the well-researched and effective treatments.

6) Can emotional problems be prevented?

Often, prevention efforts are successful and cost effective, especially in a service context that is multi-disciplinary, flexible, coordinated and supported by strong, child-oriented policies.

7) Can’t parents just be treated? What is unique about Infant Mental Health as opposed to Family Therapy and other adult services?

Infants, toddlers and preschoolers certainly need their parents more than anyone else. However, every baby and very young child is unique, and specialized knowledge is frequently lacking in services that are primarily adult-centered. Dyadic treatment, with a focus on the unique, specially tailored services to a given child requires specialized training along with an understanding of parenting and adult functioning.

8) What is required of an Infant Mental Health Professional?

Specific training in all lines of human development in the first fivc years of life, with particular knowledge about attachment, risk factors, parenting and treatment approaches.

9) What is Maine doing in the area of Infant Mental Health?

Maine has a long history of advocacy for the very young child and his/her family. Infant Mental Health training is available through the MeAIMH, and many public and community health nurses, pediatricians,.social service and mental health professionals have received infant mental health education. Over the past 25 years, service professionals and policy-makers have been working to promote the Infant Mental Health field and to better serve Maine’s infants, young children and families.

10) What can I do?

First of all, make referrals to appropriate services when you are concerned about a very young child; timing makes all the difference. Second, become better educated about risk factors and preventive factors for infants and young children. Third, support parents of very young children ­ they are often isolated and may be unaware of when there might be a problem and that something can be done about it. Finally, you may contact the Maine Association for Infant Mental Health for more information.

Maine Association for Infant Mental Health, Inc.
Debra Nugent Johnston, Executive Coordinator