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Infant Mental Health

Questions and Answers About Infant Mental Health

by Erin B. Bernau, MSW, LICSW

Babies need us to be imperfect, but still curious and attuned, parents in order to grow into the best version of themselves.

For generations, babies were thought of as adorable, moldable lumps of clay who were there to be cared for and loved until they were old enough to be useful or interesting. Without language to tell us what they think or feel about the world around them, it can still be easy to disregard the amazing development that infants are undertaking in the first year of life.

In recent years, we have come to see an exponential growth in brain science which has revealed the complex inner world of the infant’s brain. Infants are, in fact, working hard to absorb and make sense of the world around them. Their brains are developing rapidly. They are affected deeply by the emotional and physical care that they receive. While resilient, they are also vulnerable to mistreatment and to neglect.

What is infant mental health?

Put simply, infant mental health is the awareness of, and focus on, the inner world of the infant. It is the recognition that infants can have feelings and thoughts that are important to consider as we care for them on a daily basis. It is also the knowledge that the experiences that an infant has in early life will directly impact the kind of adult he or she will become.

We are born with innate characteristics, often referred to as temperament. But, we are also influenced by our environment—the places and people around which we grow up. Infant mental health recognizes both components that make us who we are. Some babies are innately more sensitive; they may react more strongly to external and internal stimuli. These babies can be harder to care for and parents may need extra support in order to be there physically and emotionally for their babies.

We also recognize now that extreme circumstances experienced in childhood (such as parental depression, poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, or other traumatic events), known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), can directly influence our mental health as adults. By supporting parents who have had these kinds of experiences, the hope is to end the cycle of mental illness that can repeat itself throughout generations.

How can I support my baby’s mental health?

Parents can support their babies’ mental health through curiosity and consistency. Be curious about your baby’s mental and physical states. Engage your baby in play and be empathetic to his need for engagement and relaxation. Consider your baby’s mental state as you go through the day. Talk to your baby. Ask him questions and comment on the things you see around you.

Also, provide your baby with some kind of consistent schedule. Babies thrive when there is some kind of predictability to routine and to care. Respond to baby’s cues with love and gentleness.

Babies need to attach securely to at least one caregiver in order to thrive. We can promote attachment through knowing ourselves well, responding to our babies’ cues, and understanding our own past attachments. Those who were raised without strong attachments themselves are not doomed to repeat this pattern with their own children! With support and self-awareness, these parents can be excellent caregivers with healthy attachments to their own children.

A baby’s mental health is intimately intertwined with that of his parents. Remember that your own good mental health and self-awareness will positively impact your baby. It is okay to need breaks from parenting and to reconnect with activities that gave you joy and pleasure before you became a parent.

What if I have a concern?

It is important to realize that there is a wide range of normal development and that most babies are resilient and grow into healthy children in their own time and in their own ways. But, if you have concerns feel free to contact your child’s pediatrician. She can be an excellent source of information. She can also help you to recognize when your own parental anxiety may be coming up instead of an actual issue with your baby. As parents, we work so hard to be available for our children that sometimes we can feel fear and worry. Unfortunately, this can lead to a negative cycle in our interactions with our children. Babies are incredibly clued into their caregiver’s mental and emotional states. An anxious parent needs to figure out ways to calm her own mental state in order to avoid negatively impacting her baby. There are therapists who specialize in working with parents who need support with the transition to parenthood and therapists who work with parent-child dyads to strengthen attachment between the two.

While we are incredibly fortunate to live in a time when scientists are rapidly discovering new information about how babies’ brains work, this can also add to increased anxiety in parents. Parents may feel that they need to be stimulating baby’s brains at every moment. In fact, babies need times of stimulation and of rest in order to grow and develop properly. This is yet another instance where we need to practice “good enough” parenting. Babies need us to be imperfect, but still curious and attuned, parents in order to grow into the best version of themselves.

Washington Association for Infant Mental Health
Fussy Baby Network, Cooper House
Listening Mothers, Community of Mindful Parents

Article: Screening Mental Health in Kindergarten is Way Too Late, Experts Say, NPR, Sept 9, 2016

Erin B. Bernau, MSW, LICSW About the Author

Erin B. Bernau, MSW, LICSW works as a parent coach and as a parent educator at Seattle Central College’s Parent/Child Center and at North Seattle College’s cooperative preschools. She has lived in California and on the East Coast, but loves raising her own family in Seattle.

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