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What is Infant Mental Health?

Does the term "infant mental health" make you think of a baby on a couch telling his problems to a psychiatrist? So what is infant mental health? Infant mental health reflects both the social-emotional capacities and the primary relationships in children birth through age five. Because young children's social experiences and opportunities to explore the world depend on the love and care they receive, the child and the child's relationships are central to "infant mental health." It is essential to ensure that first relationships are trusting and caring, as early relationships provide an important foundation for later development.




Why is Infant Mental Health important?

The first years of life provide the basis for children's mental health and social-emotional development. Social development includes the ability to form healthy relationships with others, and the knowledge of social rules and standards. Emotional development includes the experience of feelings about self and others, with a range of positive and negative emotions, as well as the ability to control and regulate feelings in culturally appropriate ways. The development of self-worth, self-confidence and self-regulation are important features of social-emotional development. Healthy social-emotional development is essential for success in school and in life.



How is Infant Mental Health nurtured by relationships?

Loving, nurturing relationships enhance emotional development and mental health. When infants and toddlers are treated with kindness and encouragement, they develop a sense of safety and emotional security. A nurturing caring relationship provides a "secure base" from which children can begin exploring the world, frequently checking back for reassurance. They more they explore and try new things, the more success they experience. They feel good about themselves. Kind, nurturing relationships also teach children how to treat others. Children watch adults and copy them. Good relationships help children feel valued. Children who feel loved and cherished grow up to be adults who care about others.



What can happen if a child does not have healthy early relationships?

Children may respond to the lack of a healthy relationship in a variety of ways.

  • Some children seem sad, rejected and lethargic. Because they lack a role model for smiling or happiness, they imitate a "flat affect" or lack of joy.

  • Some babies may become depressed or develop eating problems due to the absence of a nurturing relationship.

  • Some children try to meet their own needs. They "self-stimulate" or rock back-and-forth trying to nurture themselves. They may be so starved for affection that they seek hugs from any willing adult.

  • Some children get angry. They are aggressive and hostile without provocation. They won't allow comforting, even when they are hurt, because past relationships have not been nurturing.


How can adults nurture children's emotional development and mental health?


  • Surround children with nurturing relationships.

  • Be happy—smile and laugh.

  • Create a trusting environment.

  • Provide stable and consistent caregivers at home and in child care.

  • Understand and respond to children's cues.

  • Spend unhurried time together.

  • Comfort and reassure children when they are scared, angry, or hurt.

  • Develop routines to promote predictability and security.

  • Learn developmental stages and have appropriate expectations.

  • Model good relationships and healthy ways to manage conflict.

  • Consider how whatever you're doing or going through may affect your child.

  • Identify early signs of emotional or mental problems.




Behaviors that may indicate emotional or mental health problems.

Infants and Toddlers:

  • Displays very little emotion

  • Does not show interest in sights sounds or touch

  • Rejects or avoids being touched or held or playing with others

  • Unusually difficult to soothe or console

  • Unable to comfort or calm self

  • Extremely fearful or on-guard

  • Does not turn to familiar adults for comfort or help

  • Exhibits sudden behavior changes



Preschool Children:

  • Cannot play with others or objects

  • Absence of language or communication

  • Frequently fights with others

  • Very sad

  • Unusually fearful

  • Inappropriate responses to situations (e.g. laughs instead of cries)

  • Withdrawn

  • Extremely active

  • Loss of earlier skills (e.g. toileting, language, motor)

  • Sudden behavior changes

  • Very accident prone

  • Destructive to self and/or others



Always Consider:

  • How severe is the behavior?

  • How many weeks or months has the behavior been occurring?

  • How long does the behavior last (e.g. minutes, hours)?

  • How does the behavior compare with the behavior of other children of the same age?

  • Are there events at home or in child care that make the behavior better or worse?



If these behaviors and considerations lead to concern, you might:

  • Talk with a colleague or supervisor

  • Talk with the child's family

  • Recognize cultural differences

  • Get more information

  • Seek professional help

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