The term Infant Mental Health (IMH) is consistent with social-emotional development and a slight misnomer, in that IMH also embraces the broader scope of 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, 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 disruptions 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 and with remarkable capacities to form and regulate these relational ties. In turn, these primary relationships serve as essential ingredients in the formation of infants’ unfolding brain architecture.
Infants are surprisingly competent and endowed with predispositions toward object-seeking, attachment-promoting behaviors. They are not the “blank slates” or empty vessels as they were once thought to be. Infants possess object-orienting patterns of action and reaction from birth and an amazing repertoire of social and emotional competencies that are designed to give their parents information about their well-being and reciprocally 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.
Infant Mental Health Practice is an interdisciplinary field that represents a dramatic shift in clinical practice. IMH 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 and motor development. IMH practice offers ways of conceptualizing early disruptions in the attachment process, and of organizing interventions that address functioning across developmental domains. Its focus is on the mental health and relational dimensions of development that unfold in the context of other related domains, all of which are intimately and inextricably interlaced in infancy. Thus the thrust of IMH practice is the integration of relational, developmental and trauma informed practice.
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 promotion of awareness of IMH, as well as prevention and intervention when problems exist.
The one common denominator present in all research done with children 0-5 is having a skilled workforce able to prevent, identify, support and treat young children and their families who are at-risk.