There is no such thing as a baby, there is always a baby and someone else.

D.W. Winnicott

The Importance of Infant Mental Health

Infants and young children in the United States are exposed to a wide range of traumatic stressors, including child abuse and neglect, natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, community and school violence, domestic violence, and terroristic acts. Very young children are at disproportionate risk of experiencing traumatic events.  In addition to the increased risk of exposure, infants and young children are also at increased risk of negative outcomes related to trauma because of their limited ability to cope with challenging experiences. 

Infant mental health refers to how well a child develops socially and emotionally from birth to three. Understanding infant mental health is the key to preventing and treating the mental health problems in very young children and their families. Parental responsiveness and sensitivity are significant predictors of secure infant attachment. Insecure attachment is more common in children of parents with a mental illness and other risk factors including psychosocial stress, marital difficulties and poverty. It is essential to ensure that first relationships are trusting and caring, as early relationships provide an important foundation for later development. Exposure to trauma and neglect will affect not only behavioral and emotional outcomes but also the growth and structure of the brain. Families need to be supported to recognize that their child is unique. Parents readily get overwhelmed by the demands of family, work, and domestic tasks and caring for others.

 

Infants as young as three months old have demonstrated traumatic stress responses following direct exposure to trauma. Infants and young children show many of the same symptoms as post-traumatic stress as adults, and research has shown that children exposed to traumatic events have higher rates of depression, anxiety disorder and other impairments. These findings demonstrate the critical need to understand and respond to the needs of infants and very young children experiencing trauma, not only to reduce possible negative effects but also to prevent later mental health challenges.

The primary mission of the infant mental health profession is to promote and support nurturing relationships for all infants. The focus is on development of the infant and toddler within the context of complex relationships. Services are comprehensive and intensive, covering multiple domains, including concrete relationships. Services are supportive, affirming, and strengths-based. They are specifically designed to be respectful of the infant’s and family’s individually, culture and ethnicity.

VAIMH service providers/professionals work in a variety of ways to assure that all infants have opportunities for nurturing relationships essential for optimal growth and development. VAIMH service providers/professionals offer direct services to infants and families: supervise and train staff; consult with, collaborate, and educate other community professionals; advocate for services; develop best practice policies; and/or teach and conduct research in colleges and universities.  All of these activities reflect a commitment to values that are the bedrock of infant mental health practice.

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