What is Infant Mental Health?
Infant mental health means the mental health of children from newborns to the age of three. It also includes the parent's relationship with the child. Infants learn a lot about feelings and relationships in their early years of life.
A new baby is exciting - and stressful! Parents often worry about everything they need to do and wonder if they're doing it right. But they can help their infant's mental health through the small things we usually do without thinking: talking to the baby, responding to their smiles or cries, and holding them when they seem scared. All of these small things are part of attachment. Attachment is a way of talking about a parent's relationship and bond with your infant.
Infants can form close bonds with many important loved ones. But they often form the closest bond with the person they spend the most time with. Depending on the situation, that person could be the mother, father, grandparent or another caregiver. The person may be related to the child or not.
Infants use parents or other caregivers as a safe base and as safe shelter. With a safe base, infants can explore things around them. Then when they feel scared or threatened, they can go back for shelter and comforting. This attachment raises the infant’s self-confidence, teaches them how to act in relationships and builds coping skills. It’s also a part of the way the infant’s physical brain develops.
Signs that a parent or caregiver and infant have good attachment are when the infant:
- comes to the parent when hurt, needing help or comfort
- shows affection
- greets the parent and wants to be close to you after they've been apart
- interacts with the parent while exploring (looks back and makes eye contact)
- is more comfortable with the parent than strangers
If an infant does not behave in these ways there may be an attachment problem. There may also be a problem if the infant seems to need the parent's help too little or too often. Other signs of attachment problems are if the infant doesn't show affection in any other social situation or shows a lot of affection to strangers. But these can also be signs of other health problems. That's why it's so important to seek help early.
How do I know if an infant has mental health problems?
Here are some signs that an infant may be at risk for mental health problems.
- were abused as children
- have a mental health challenge or disorder, including postpartum depression
- have drug or alcohol problems
- have relationship problems
- are violent or abusive or in conflict
- lack support
- are teenagers
- had a difficult or scary birth experience
- has problems with sleep or feeding
- over-responds or under-responds to things around them
- poor attachment between an infant and their parents or other caregivers
Can an infant be diagnosed with a mental disorder?
Yes. But it can be difficult to diagnose because infants can’t tell you how they feel or what they think. It’s also important to remember that normal development will look different in different infants. Changes, like the birth of a new brother or sister, can cause a lot of stress. The stress may affect the way the infant acts, but it isn’t a mental disorder in itself. A doctor can work to see what else may be causing or adding to the infant’s problems. This can take a long time, but it’s important. A diagnosis will help to connect with treatment options and take action early.
When should I see my doctor?
An infant or very young child can't tell you they have a problem, but there are warning signs. It is best to see a doctor if the infant:
- does not want to be held
- cannot be comforted when upset, or is upset for longer than seems right
- has a lot of problems eating and sleeping
- won’t make or keep eye contact with the parent or caregiver, or avoids eye contact with others
- doesn’t seem to interact with others
- doesn’t make noises very often, like cooing or babbling sounds
- doesn’t use language as expected for their age
- loses skills they could once do
What can be done?
Infant mental health is about getting help early. It's always a good idea to talk to your doctor as soon as you notice a problem. There are many different things parents can do. Here are a few suggestions:
- teaches parents or caregivers how to recognize an infant’s cues and take action
- may be informal, using things like fact sheets, videos or websites
- may include more formal meetings with a child care professional
- visits from a mental health worker, like a community care nurse, may help identify problems early
- may help a family feel less alone
- sometimes helps professionals take action if a family has social problems like low income or poor housing
- looks at the way a parent and child interact
- uses coaching, videos, play time and other tools to teach positive parenting
- helps parents learn to sense what a child needs
- increases attachment between the parent and child
- can also include talk with a therapist about past issues that may affect how parents deal with their child
- based on the idea that a change in the parents will lead to a change in their infants
Encourage good attachment - Tips for Parents
- make eye contact, talk, sing, smile and laugh with your infant
- respond to your infant’s needs. Learn what your infant’s cues (like smiles, cries and cooing) mean and respond to them quickly
- provide basic needs like clothing and food
- give lots of love and attention, especially if your infant is sick, hurt or upset
- take care of your own health. If stress or difficult situations affect your relationship with your infant, it's best to talk to a mental health professional about your own health.
Poor attachment may be a risk factor, but it doesn’t guarantee a mental health challenge or disorder will occur. And, good attachment may give a child protection from a mental health challenge or disorder. Parents can't control some of the things that cause mental health challenges or disorders. But they can provide things that promote good mental health, like a safe home, healthy relationships, good support and attachment.
Where to from here?
Talk to your doctor and look for help from a mental health professional by:
- self-referring or getting a referral to the local Child and Youth Mental Health team
- contacting your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP), if you have this option
- contacting a private psychologist or counsellor:
For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit the Finding Help section of our site.
Below you will find some key resources. A full list of resources are on the right hand side bar.
ZERO TO THREE is an American organization that promotes the health and well-being of infants and toddlers.
The goal of infant mental health services is to ensure optimal child outcomes in terms of a sense of security and self-esteem, and the ability to form satisfying relationships, to engage with the world, to learn, to cope and problem solve, and to continue positive development throughout life.