If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
By Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C., Mayo Clinic Health System Licensed Professional Counselor
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” —Frederick Douglas
When it comes to mental health, we may think mainly of a man struggling with depression after losing his job, a woman anxious about her relationship with her partner or a rebellious teenager. We rarely think of infants and young children. These little bundles of joy seem to have uncomplicated and happy lives. Sadly, many mental health difficulties have their roots in challenges occurring in infancy and early childhood. Early intervention is essential to preventing mental health disorders.
Infant mental health refers to the well-being of infants and children up to age 3 and includes the child’s emotional and social growth and development. Many new caregivers (moms, dads, grandparents and foster parents) can experience normal challenges with their infants. When challenges become persistent or apparently unchangeable, caregivers may experience anxiety and frustration. Seeking supportive counsel with an expert in infant and early childhood development can provide helpful strategies to reduce stress.
Indicators of infant mental health difficulties may be:
• Poor sleep patterns
• Difficulties with feeding
• Persistent and/or unremitting crying
• Gastric disturbance
• Anxiety and tension
• Distress and fear
• Lack of weight gain/failure to thrive
• Failure to meet expected developmental milestones
Central to an infant’s mental health is his/her relationship with primary caregivers. Newborns come into the world with a highly underdeveloped neurological system. They are vulnerable and unable to regulate their physical and emotional states independently. Infants initially have four identifiable biological states of deep sleep, light sleep, active alert and quiet alert (Brazelton), and rely on their caregivers to help them remain in a comfortable state. Each of these states performs an essential function for growth and development. It is through predictable, sensitive and responsive care that infants are able to regulate their states and feel safe in their environment. State regulation creates an optimal biophysical environment for brain development. Feeling safe builds secure attachment — a connection that sets the stage for social emotional learning. Without healthy social emotional connections, living comfortably can be challenging.
Infants don’t have words; however, they are biologically programmed to seek closeness to their caregivers. Infants employ cues, such as crying, hiccoughs, gaze aversion and even changes in skin color, to attract a caregiver’s attention when they are in distress and need help. Imagine for a moment that you are cold or hungry and unable to help yourself. You flush red (sign of distress) and then fuss. Someone who notices these cues comes to help warm you or provides you nourishment. How do you feel when that person relieves you of your discomfort? What do you learn about the world and relationships? These first sensitive and caring responses to infant cues teach us that we can trust that our needs will be met and we will be safe.
When infants are comforted and their basic needs are met, they have been given the first building blocks of mental health — trust and safety. These gifts are the fertile ground for healthy social emotional growth.