What is Infant Mental Health?
The term Infant Mental Health (IMH) is a slight misnomer and also includes Early Childhood Mental Health. IMH can be understood as the developing capacity of the 0-5 year old child to experience, regulate and express emotions, form close and secure interpersonal relationships and explore the environment and learn within the psychological balance of the parent-infant relational system, as well as larger family, community and culture without serious disruption caused by harmful life events.
Recent neuropsychological research has shown that infants are born with their brains wired to be engaged in important nurturing and protective relationships. They come into the world with remarkable capacities to establish and regulate these relationships. Infants are surprisingly competent and endowed with predispositions toward attachment promoting behaviors. They are not the “blank slates” they were once thought to be. Infants possess an amazing repertoire of social and emotional capacities that are designed to give their parent information about their well-being and to actively behave in ways that modify and regulate the behavior of their parents. The infant’s capacities to execute these signaling behaviors have roots across developmental domains. In turn, infants seek emotional responsiveness from their parents and become disturbed when it is not forthcoming.
Although the infant’s contribution to the relationship with his parent is great, it cannot be separated from the context of the parent. The infant-parent relationship will suffer when infants fail to display behaviors or characteristics which elicit responsive caregiving as can be the case with some premature, drug-exposed or those that have developmental challenges. Sometimes it is parents who cannot modify their expectations because their early life was characterized by unmet needs, abandonment and maltreatment, or because current stressors like maternal depression, mental illness or domestic violence are present.
What is Infant Mental Health and Developmental Practice?
IMH-DP is an interdisciplinary field that represents a dramatic shift in clinical practice. IMH-DP practice focuses on the development of 0-5 year olds within the context of the early parent-child relationship as the foundation for healthy social-emotional, cognitive, language and even physical development. IMH-DP offers ways of conceptualizing early disruptions in the attachment process, and of organizing interventions. Its focus is on the mental health and relational dimensions of development that unfold in the context of other related domains of development, all of which are intimately and inextricably interlaced in infancy. Thus the thrust of IMH-DP practice must be developmentally and trauma informed.
Multidisciplinary Infant Mental Health specialists work within the context of the parent-child relationship to strengthen parental capacity while promoting both an understanding of the needs of infants and young children and their parents’ unique ability to meet those needs. The dimensions of service aim to meet the needs of families on multiple levels and in many settings and include a service continuum that includes both prevention and intervention.
This comprehensive and intensive approach integrates a range of methods and services that include emotional support, developmental/parent guidance, early relationship assessment, infant-parent psychotherapy, advocacy and concrete assistance.