June 2023: What is infant mental health and how do we support it?

Premie Infant

Blog: What is infant mental health and how do we support it? 

Associate Professor Campbell Paul, Consultant Infant and Child Psychiatrist, Clinical Lead of the Infant Mental Health Program at the RCH and the Childrens Campus Mental Health Strategy Family Centred Care project, and President of the World Association of Infant Mental Health. 

15 June 2023 

The question I am often asked is what is infant mental health anyway? How can babies have mental health problems? Sure, babies, toddlers and preschoolers can have problems, but they grow out of them, don't they?  

But we know from our work with infants, young children and their parents, and a significant body of research, is that this is not true. We also know, from this clinical experience and research evidence, is infants and young children who have significant mental health problems tend to have similar sorts of problems as they go through preschool and into the school years.  

In fact, many of the difficulties young people and adults encounter have origins from earlier experiences as infants and toddlers, both within families and the context of the broader community.  

Babies and young children can experience trauma, and this has an impact on how they feel at the time, but it also has an impact on how things unfold. That's not to say that every trauma, every unfortunate or scary event a baby or young child experiences is going to lead to mental health problems. We know that's not true. 

But what we do know is when people experience trauma, about a quarter have significant ongoing problems which could be diagnosed as a mental health difficulty.  

The good news is there are things we can do to prevent this from happening. When a baby or young child has experienced something traumatic, like witnessing car crash, or being in a car crash, or being bitten by dog, or other accidents that might lead them to hospital, many parents/carers are able to provide the support that they need to move through trauma.  

But for some families, where parents/carers have themselves experienced trauma, it can be hard to be emotionally available for their child and provide the support needed. The way babies or very young child communicate what they are feeling or needing is different from older children.  

To support infant mental health, we need to be able to read the nonverbal communications that come from infants and very young children. If you're able to take time to observe and reflect, step back a bit, it's amazing how much information you can get from a baby or young child. This means the way the child looks at you, the way they respond when you look to them, when you smile, when you speak. The baby might respond with a little softening of their face, a smile, they'll hold your gaze, might lift their eyebrows, or make a vocalisation. 

We know parents and carers are really good at this, when they're in the right frame of mind.   Parents/carers who are feeling in an okay state are able to recognise and respond quite intuitively. However, it's hard to do when you’re stressed yourself. Parent’s/carer’s own trauma can get in the way, making it hard even see expressions the child/baby is making.  

When parents/carers have experienced trauma or stress, we can support good infant mental health by helping them to think about what the worried or traumatised young child might be thinking and feeling themselves. 

Supporting parents/carers to think about or mentalise how their infant or toddler might be thinking, feeling, experiencing things themselves, to be able to put yourself in your baby shoes and read what they've got say, is key to supporting emotional health in the early years. 

To learn more about infant mental health (IMH) and the services available you can visit our IMH page. 

Acknowledgement of Country

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At Mental Health Central we acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, gather and work. We recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.

We acknowledge all people with a lived or living experience of mental ill-health and recovery. At the Campus, we particularly acknowledge children, young people, families, carers, and supporters. We recognise their vital contribution and value the courage of those who share this unique perspective for the purpose of learning and growing together to achieve better outcomes for the Campus, staff, sector, and all people of lived experience.

Proudly supported by the Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation