Infant Mental Health
What would mental health have to do with an infant? When I mention I work with infant mental health, I often receive a puzzling look or frozen stare begging this very question. It excites me to formulate my response as I have come to find the significance and foundation of mental health at this most early and critical stage of life through my work. My hope in bringing more awareness to infant mental health is that it will further begin to shape attention to mental health across the lifespan and guide others to take a closer look at a vulnerable population who has no voice of their own to communicate the need.
The birth of a child can be a miraculous event! In our culture, it is often celebrated with showers of gifts, creative announcements, and congratulations. These expressions of celebrating the newborn child are often intended to create a welcoming response not only to the infant but also to his/her caregiver. Most significant to the infant and the core of infant mental health is the secure emotional bond of the infant to his/her caregiver. Donald Winnicott (1964) indicates, “There is no such thing as a baby, there is only a baby and someone.” He further explains that if you describe a baby you are describing the infant-caregiver relationship. “A baby cannot exist alone, only in a relationship.” If deprived of love and a dependable caregiver, the infant will likely experience lasting and costly effects in all areas of development.
An infant may sleep deeply, be alert, or cry intensely. The infant may visually fixate and follow or track others. An infant may also attend to his/her body, his/her parents and begin to explore things with his/her mouth. Motor development for an infant begins with his/her head control, grasping and releasing, and later the ability to push him/herself up. An infant may vocalize, signal discomfort, be fussy, be withdrawn, have good muscle tone, track with eyes, or show interest in the human face.
“Infant mental health is defined as the developing capacity for the infant (birth to three months) to experience, express and regulate emotions; form close and secure relationships; explore their environment and learn; all in the context of cultural expectations.” (Zero to Three, Infant Mental Task Force, 2001) Infant mental health does not seek to pathologize an infant but rather to convey the importance of the foundation of an infant within a nurturing, secure attachment. The goals are to minimize difficulties and suffering that infants may experience and to enhance their development, capacity and competence (Osofsky, 2012).
A caregiver’s positive engagement with the infant will have a direct impact on the mental health of the child. Furthermore, awareness of the infant’s developmental needs is important. The infant needs a caregiver who responds to vocalizations, changes voice tone, engages in face to face contact, responds to cues, can comfort the infant, enjoys physical contact, initiates positive interaction and identifies positive qualities of the infant.
While these qualities and important aspects of the caregiving relationship have an impact on the infant, there are also other factors that shape an infant’s mental health. A caregiving environment filled with conflict between one caregiver and another or one with substances such as smoke, alcohol or drugs will create a different learning environment. A family struggling financially to meet the demands of the child’s needs such as diapers, formula, food, etc. can have an impact on the infant. Additionally, an infant with early medical needs that require equipment, special training or particular responses and attention will also have an impact on the infant and the caregiving relationship. An infant can be impacted by socioecomonic, biological, familial and community factors, therefore requiring a multidisciplinary approach.
We, as humans, are wired for connection. Behaviors between the infant and his/her caregiver helps create an “internal working model” about how the infant sees him/herself, sees others and the options, both secure or insecure, for relating. As an infant there are 100 billion neurons in the brain. “Human connection creates neuronal connection.” Thus, the baby’s brain development is largely supported by his/her caregiver(s). A baby can learn to anticipate others’ tendency to accept, reject, attack, delight in, withdraw from, or support them. (Siegel, 2006)
How can one support a baby’s mental health? It is important to learn to delight in your baby for mutual engagement and connection. Things such as holding your baby, eye gazing, responding to needs, staying with your baby when upset, and naming the baby’s feelings can all support the baby’s mental health. You can’t spoil a baby or be “too responsive”. It is important to develop routines, understand your baby’s temperament, provide alternatives for your baby when what he/she is doing is not effective, and to stay calm as the caregiver. Understanding your infant’s cues regarding his/her needs or preferences is going to be helpful, not only to the child but to the relationship. Finally, learning to identify stressors for your baby by noticing if particular situations or the time of day has an impact on the child’s ability to self-regulate will be beneficial in supporting the infant’s mental health. (Cooper, Hoffman, Marvin, and Powell, 2000)
If you have concerns about your infant’s mental health, support is available. If you find you are struggling to meet the needs of your child or there are strains in the emotional connections with your infant, it is imperative to both you and the infant to reach out early. Infant mental health can have a lasting impact and there are various options available.
Cooper, H. M. (2000). Building a secure attachment for your baby. Retrieved from www.circleofsecurityinternational.org.
Infant Mental Health Task Force (2001) retrieved December 2018 from website: www.zerotothree.org.
Osofsky, J. (2016). Infant mental health. American Psychological Association.
Understanding the value of the circle of security in relationship to adult psychotherapy. (2018). Retrieved from www.circleofsecurityinternational.org.
Tags: being responsive to baby's needs, devloping routines for your baby, infant mental health, supporting a baby's mental health, understanding your infant's cues
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work. She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
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