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Infants have mental health needs too – part two

By Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C., Mayo Clinic Health System Licensed Professional Counselor

Let’s think about the impact of healthy social emotional growth in infants.  Social emotional growth is the first learning priority for infants and can be defined as an infant’s experience, expression and management of emotions, and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others. (Cohen, et al., 2005).

Core features of healthy social emotional growth are:

• Understanding one’s own emotional states

• Reading and understanding emotional states in others

• Managing strong emotions and expressing these in a constructive manner

• Regulating own behavior

• Developing empathy for others

• Establishing and maintaining relationships

An infant’s future abilities to pay attention, adapt in flexible ways, learn in school and in life situations, make friends, and manage anger, anxiety and other emotions in healthy ways all depend on healthy social emotional development and the connection of secure attachment which leads to the ability to trust in others and self. When infants and young children struggle to develop these essential abilities, mental illness can follow.

There are many things that can interfere with a caregiver’s ability to provide sensitive responsive care including:

• Parental mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety

• Parental history of neglect and abuse

• Single parenthood without support

• Temperament mismatches between infant and caregiver

• Poverty/financial stress

• Marital conflict

• Alcohol/drug abuse

A caregiver’s most important goals are to provide a loving, safe environment for their infants. When a caregiver experiences personal health concerns or life events that interfere with caring for their infant or young child, they may experience guilt and worry that others will judge them as being an incompetent caregiver. As caregivers, we may even judge ourselves negatively. It is important to understand that most caregivers experience some or many challenges and that support is available to help caregivers achieve their goals for their infant.

Caregivers who would like more information or have questions about preventive infant mental health may like to meet with a professional trained in newborn behavior observation (NBO). NBO is conducted with infants who are 3 months or younger and their caregivers. NBO is a great way to receive support in learning about your infant’s unique cues and to ask questions with the goal of increasing connection and overall mental health.

When symptoms are present for either the infant or caregiving system, caregivers should seek professional help. Infants and their caregivers can be supported through dyadic therapy. This treatment focuses on strengthening the recognition of and response to infant cues within the infant/caregiver relationship to foster brain development and social emotional growth.