The Washington Association for Infant Mental Health

About Infant Mental Health

Research tells us that the most rapid brain development occurs during the first three years of life. An infant’s positive attachment to her or his primary caregivers is the foundation for healthy social emotional and cognitive development. The presence of a secure, nurturing relationship between a child and his or her primary caregivers protects the developing brain.

What can affect the quality of these early attachments?
Conditions such as parental depression, extreme poverty, substance abuse or domestic violence in the home can sometimes threaten the quality of early attachment relationships. If such conditions and life events, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), are not attended to the developing brain can suffer actual damage. Such brain damage can result in life-long behavioral, learning, and physical health problems. However, early identification and intervention, including supporting the resiliency and competency of the caregiver, can have powerful positive effects and prevent children from developing more serious disorders as they grow.

Who can help if there are concerns about early attachment relationships?
Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) is a field of practice devoted to promoting healthy social and emotional development, preventing future mental health problems, and treating mental health problems of very young children in the context of their families. Support services usually take place in child/caregiver dyads, offering opportunities for positive outcomes for both the child and the caregiver. Caregivers learn to better understand the meaning of their child’s behavior, as well as appropriate ways to respond. They also learn to reflect on how their own unresolved issues contribute to their relationship with the child. Even caregivers and babies not experiencing trauma can benefit from the coaching and family support that infant and early childhood mental health services can provide.

What kinds of services do infant and early mental health providers offer?
Examples of IECMH programs include:

  • Parenting tools such as the Circle of Security Parenting® DVD.
  • Home visiting programs including: Nurse Family Partnership, My Baby and Me, ChildFirst,
  • Promoting First Relationships, Fussy Baby Network, and Early Intervention Services through Part C.
  • Child/Parent Psychotherapy, Parent/Child Interaction Therapy, perinatal treatment services, and other therapeutic interventions.

Many of these programs are evidence-based and over time have been shown to have strong, positive results for both parents and their children. Using the tools and support from IECMH providers, children’s school readiness and positive social emotional development can be greatly strengthened, reducing the likelihood that more expensive services such as special education or mental health hospitalization will be needed later on. In addition to strengthening their ability to support and nurture their children, parents often discover how to make positive long-lasting changes that will allow them to improve their education and their employment.

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