What is infant mental health?
When we think about babies, we’re usually concerned with their most physical needs. After all, babies do a lot of sleeping, eating, and pooping! But as a newborn grows, their mental health needs grow too. They express themselves in ways beyond crying and they need support to build social and emotional health.
Infant mental health concerns emotional and social development for the first three years of life. During this time, the brain is developing extremely quickly, making it a critical period in learning to manage emotions and form healthy relationships. Unfortunately, there’s a lot that can go wrong during this time and families need to be aware of warning signs as well as the hallmarks of healthy development.
Learning as much as possible about infant mental health empowers families to help their children develop and provide early, powerful interventions when necessary. Encountering a mental health issue early on is common, but proper intervention can make all the difference. Here’s what you need to know about infant mental health and what to do if your child is struggling to reach key benchmarks.
How infant mental health develops
Mental health is important from day one. During their first few years of life, children need to learn how to express themselves and manage their emotions. They also need to learn how to build healthy and secure relationships and navigate the world around them, physically and culturally.
Although every child is different, it’s important to realize that environment can make a huge difference in a child’s mental health. Families and communities can help children develop into happy, healthy, and confident people by providing support in their mental health development.
How infant mental health development differs from physical health development
It’s important to understand the difference between infant mental health and physical growth to ensure that children have all the support they need for different aspects of development. While skills like hand-eye coordination and motor skills involve the brain, these milestones are related to physical, rather than mental developments. A healthy diet, exercise, and the ability to interact with the world will help children develop these skills.
A child’s emotional, intellectual, and social skills, however, develop with the brain. For children to develop emotionally, the most important factor is a loving environment that offers the child opportunities to develop self- and social awareness, problem-solving skills, focus, resilience, and curiosity.
Common mental health disorders among children include anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children who struggle with mental health issues typically show signs and symptoms early on but display them differently than adults, which can make problems more difficult to spot. A child’s environment can be a major factor in their long-term mental health, as circumstances like abuse, neglect, persistent poverty, and other issues may cause toxic stress and prevent a very young child from developing properly and learning essential emotional and social skills.
Factors that influence infant mental health
Infant mental health development starts with children learning how to process core emotions like sadness and anger. Over time, they will learn even more complex skills, such as self-awareness and empathy. If given the opportunity to develop in a loving, secure environment, most children will become emotionally-competent, secure, and trusting.
Families can help to foster healthy development by responding to their child’s emotions, providing proper socialization opportunities, and of course, providing love and support. Parents need to be self-aware and understand their impact on their child’s early development and well-being. Avoiding the transfer of problems from generation to generation can be key in raising emotionally and mentally healthy children.
Working with a developmental psychologist
There are lots of resources for parents on child development, but sometimes, professional help is necessary. Working with a developmental psychologist can be an important step for children who might need extra support in their first few years. Psychologists are experts in how people think and behave, which allows them to help families struggling with infant mental health issues.
A psychologist can provide diagnoses and treatment plans for children who are showing signs of poor mental health or a lack of normal emotional development. Parent-infant psychotherapy can be an important tool for parents who are scared and overwhelmed or worried about the long-term implications of their child’s developmental issues. A psychologist can also help parents who are struggling with the all-important parent-child relationship.
Find a support team that suits you and your infant
Every family is different. If you have concerns about your child’s development, it’s important to find a support team that works for your individual situation. Child development professionals can help support healthy development in a number of different ways, from environmental control to changes in parental behavior.
Don’t panic if your child isn’t hitting all their milestones right on schedule. Every child is different, after all. What’s most important is providing a healthy, stable, loving environment and knowing when to seek help.