The Importance of Infant Mental Health


By: Angy Talbot (ECFE Blog Writer)

Infant Mental Health refers to infants developing the ability to form meaningful relationships, express and handle emotions, discover and learn, all within the infant’s environment, family, culture and community. Infant Mental Health is about the relationships between the caregivers and the infant. “The infant comes into the world totally dependent on her or his caregivers. It is through the relationship with the primary caregiver that a baby experiences the world. This relationship plays a vital role in the infant’s emotional well-being. When this relationship is nurturing and responsive, a baby develops the skills to learn, to regulate emotions, and to interact socially” (Healthy Minnesotans: Public Health Improvement Goals 2004, Goal Number 5, pg 5). Infants are dependent on their parents or primary caregivers; whatever affects the adult, has an effect on the child. “If an adult is experiencing a life situation that prevents them from parenting well, such as depression, poverty, family or community, violence, homelessness, chemical dependency, or social isolation, there can be a profound impact on the wellbeing of the infant” (CEED). When there are attachment or relationship concerns between the infant and their caregiver such as failure to respond to the baby’s needs in a nurturing manner, the child’s development can be compromised. The attachment relationship organizes the developing child’s since of fear and security. Infants are developing ways of responding to internal and external influences. They’re learning how to live in this world with others including how to regulate and relate to the responses of those in their lives.
Early intervention will help children learn to manage emotions and feelings, build meaningful relationships, increase social emotional skills, and giving children the support and guidance to develop health and mental health. Early intervention includes support, guidance, and resources for the parents or caregivers. “Infant mental health services are multidimensional and include providing emotional support for the parent and child, access to concrete resources such as food, clothing, transportation and housing, and developmental guidance and advocacy in order to allow the parent to understand their child’s needs and development” (Minnesota Department of Human Services). What parents need is to be aware of resources and connections in mental health. Services for mothers and pregnant women may help them receive referrals and treatment for maternal depression or mental health concerns. A few years ago I went to a staff development training where Dr. Terrie Rose was the speaker. Dr. Terrie Rose is a licensed child psychologist and a nationally recognized speaker in the areas of early childhood development and mental health. She told a story, which is called, The River, (a metaphor for early childhood mental health). “It’s a beautiful day. A villager is out walking along the grass and sees something unusual in the river. It is a child. She jumps in the river, saves the child and calls another villager to help. That villager looks in the river and sees another child. He jumps in to save the second child and calls for more help. The villagers soon see more and more children coming down the river. The prosperous village sets up a system to watch for children, and rescue and feed them. One day, a villager walks away from his post. Others say, ‘Hey, why are you going?’ The person says, ‘I am going to find out why the children are in the river in the first place.’ This is where we have been going for the past 30 years. We have been slowly moving up stream in terms of research and best practice, to better understand why children are in the river” (Dr. Terrie Rose). When I heard this story, it truly put into perspective for me how far we’ve come in terms of infant mental health and that we need to go to the source, the infant’s caregivers. When parents receive the help they need, the child will too.

For More information on Infant Mental Health go to:

Early Childhood Supports and Services

Center of Infant Mental Health and Development

Harvard University, National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Mental Health Problems in Early Childhood Can Impair Learning and Behavior for Life

Healthy Minnesotans: Public Health Improvement Goals 2004, Goal Number 5
MN Association for Children’s Mental Health

MN Dept. of Health

MN Dept. of Human Services

Minnesota Thrive Initiative

Terrie Rose – Children’s Mental Health

University of MN, CEED

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