Understanding Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health
Infant and early childhood mental health refers to the quality of a child’s first and early relationships and the child’s social and emotional development. When we talk about infant/early childhood mental health we mean a child’s ability to:
- experience warm and responsive relationships with care givers
- create relationships with others
- explore and learn
- communicate in play
- express and regulate emotion
Attachment and Early Relationships
The first three years of life set the stage for social-emotional functioning throughout the lifespan. Attachment refers to the ongoing nurturing relationship that a child builds with familiar adults. The caregiver-child relationship is fundamental to shaping brain development, specifically through the interactions that occur between the caregiver and the child. When infants and toddlers have healthy relationships that support attachment, they learn to trust that the world is safe and they have confidence to explore and learn.
We know through scientific research that a child’s early experiences—whether positive or negative —affect the development of his/her brain as well as his/her health (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University). The first three years of a baby’s life is a time of rapid growth and development. At birth, infants have roughly 100 billion brain cells. By age 3, a child’s brain has mostly grown and is making connections and learning about the world (Zero to Three). A baby and toddler needs caring, sensitive adult-child contact to help him/her develop trust, understanding, compassion, kindness and a conscience. We now know that babies’ brains do not develop fully when this warm caregiving is missing. Research has shown that as a child grows, nurturing and warm relationships with parents/caregivers shape his or her self-image and give the child the skills needed to face new challenges.
Social-Emotional Health and Development:
Healthy, early social-emotional development exists within the cultural context of family and community. Social-emotional development involves:
- the capacity to experience, regulate and express emotion;
- the ability to form close, secure interpersonal relationships; and
- the ability to explore the environment and learn.
Developing secure relationships with caregivers and other adults is crucial for the development of healthy social and emotional skills in infants and toddlers. It is also essential for developing future relationships and lays the foundation for good mental health.