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Why ‘Infant Mental Health’?
Why is our mental health during infancy important for our whole lives?

What do we mean by infant mental health?

‘Infant mental health’ (IMH) refers to how a child develops socially and emotionally from birth to three in the context of their family, community, and culture. IMH is the infant’s developing capacity to:

  • form close and secure adult and peer relationships
  • experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions
  • explore the environment and learn.

Understanding infant mental health is the key to preventing and treating the mental health problems of very young children and their families.

Zero To Three www.zerotothree.org

Pregnancy and the first postnatal year are particularly important in terms of giving every baby the best start in life. This period is a significant ‘window of opportunity’ to support all families. Parents who seek help when things are not going well are not only looking after themselves, they are looking after their baby as well.

1 Bonding with the unborn baby

Babies’ emotional health and wellbeing begins before they are born, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy.

Feeling a connection with the ‘imagined’ baby during pregnancy is an important foundation for the parent’s later relationship with the ‘real’ baby.

2 Infant brain development

‘What needs to be written in neon letters lit up against a night sky is that the orbitofrontal cortex, which is so much about being human., develops almost entirely post-natally.’

Gerhardt, 2014

Most people now accept that the environment caregivers provide for a baby, and the way the baby is looked after, affect all aspects of the baby’s development – emotional, physical and social. 

Until fairly recently, it was thought that how a baby’s brain develops – and how the connections and interconnections form – depends on maturation and the genes passed on by caregivers. But recent research findings make it clear that this is only a small part of the story.

3 Caregiver sensitivity to the infant

Research, which until recently has focused largely on mothers, demonstrates the importance of all caregivers being sensitive and responsive to their babies. Indeed, sensitivity is one of the key factors influencing an infant’s attachment to the caregiver.

When studies compare achievements of children of any age, on any aspect of child development, the sensitivity and responsivity of their primary caregiver in the first year of the baby’s life, explains more of the difference between the children’s achievements than anything else.

4 Infant attachment to the ‘primary caregiver’

Decades of international research have shown that a secure attachment to mothers, fathers, or the ‘primary caregiver’, impacts on development throughout life: mental, physical and emotional. 

Secure attachment grows out of this attuned relationship.

5 Relational trauma for the infant

‘Relational trauma’ is about the way in which an infant/child can be traumatised, and develop strategies to cope, as a result of their early interactions with one or more caregivers.

“I won’t remember anything about what’s happening to me now, but it will affect me for the rest of my life… you can be part of helping make it the best start possible”

Mother standing holding newborn baby.
Child being hugged and comforted.