Infant mental health refers to the healthy social and emotional development of a child from conception to the age of three.
Infant mental health is also a multidisciplinary field of research and clinical practice covering the:
- promotion of healthy social and emotional development
- prevention of mental health problems
- treatment of mental health problems of very young children within the family context.
One of the main focuses of infant mental health is supporting the critical relationship between an infant and their parent or carer. As the relationship between an infant and their parents or carers is the most significant influence on a young child’s development, it is intrinsically connected to good infant mental health.
The impact of risk and protective factors
One way to support the infant and parent/carer relationship is to understand the impact of risk and protective factors on infant mental health.
Infants who are exposed to protective factors have a decreased chance of experiencing mental health difficulties, whereas exposure to risk factors increases the likelihood of mental health difficulties developing.
Protective factors help to balance out the risk of developing mental health difficulties and build resilience - the ability to cope with life’s difficulties. Some examples of children’s mental health protective factors include: a stable and warm home environment, having supportive parents or carers and early childhood services, achieving developmental milestones, routines and consistency in life and having support from a wide circle of family, friends and community members.
Risk factors may include: individual characteristics of the infant such as temperament, family factors, community or societal factors. They can also include events that challenge an infant’s social and emotional wellbeing such as a death in the family, or can be a chain of events that are linked to each other, such as ongoing family stress that leads to family separation.
These experiences may be stressful for an infant or family and make it harder for them to cope. It is the combination of the negative effects of risk factors and mediating protective factors that lead to the development of an infant’s mental health difficulties. While the presence of risk factors does not always mean an infant will develop mental health difficulties, they can increase the chance of this happening.
Protective factors decrease the chance of a child experiencing mental health difficulties. Protective factors are related to good outcomes for children, and serve to protect children when they are exposed to risk.
How can health and community professionals work with parents and carers?
Positive infant health begins with supporting a pregnant mother and her family unit, building on the protective factors unique to the family, as well as assessing for, and minimising, any risk factors that may also be present.
Health and community professionals can play a positive role in helping parents and carers become more in tune with their infant and the way their infant communicates.
All infants communicate from the moment of birth. This desire to communicate is the way an infant expresses his or her desire to connect with those around them.
When parents and carers learn to respond to their infant with consistency, and when they attune to their infant’s needs, they are creating an environment that promotes their infant’s mental health and wellbeing.
Health and community professionals can support parents and carers to:
- get to know their infant’s unique needs
- develop their capacity to respond to their baby’s gestures, sounds and facial expressions
- engage in play with their baby
- express warmth and affection towards their baby
- provide security through consistent and predictable caregiving
- identify protective factors, such as social support to build on and strengthen
- identify and reduce exposure to risk factors
Health and community professionals can also be an essential first point of referral for many parents and carers, providing them with information on local infant mental health services and other psychological and specialist supports.
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