Introduction to Infant/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 caregivers;
- create relationships with others;
- explore and learn;
- communicate in play; and
- express and control emotions.
We know through scientific research that a child’s early experiences—whether good or bad —affect the development of children’s brains and their health (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University). The first three years of a baby’s life is a time of big growth and development. A newborn’s brain is about 25 percent of its adult weight. By age 3, your child’s brain has mostly grown and is making connections and learning about the world (Zero to Three). Your baby and toddler need 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 care giving is missing. Healthy and caring parent/caregiver relationships help children get ready to enter school so they can be happy, well behaved and willing to learn. Research has shown that as a child grows, kind relationships with parents/caregivers shape his or her self-image and give the child the skills needed to face new challenges.
Developing Warm and Caring Relationships
Early relationships are so important for a young child to have good mental health. Parents and caregivers play a large part in their children’s mental health. When parents are open and caring to their babies and toddlers’ needs they create a secure and trusting relationship that later relationships will be built upon. Infants thrive on human stimuli –parents’ faces, voices, touch, and even smell. They are born with the need to be with people and not just for food. Their first “toy” is Mommy or Daddy’s face. They love to look at eyes and mouths. Babies would rather listen to speech or singing than any other kind of sound.
As babies get older and do more on their own, they still need physical care, but they also need their parents/caregivers for their emotional care. Close and caring relationships help infants, toddlers and preschoolers with a healthy- start in their mental health. There are many things that a parent/caregiver can do with their child to help their child’s learning every day.
Great Ways to Interact With Your Young Child
- Learn to read your babies cues and what soothing techniques work.
- Talk often with your children from the day they are born.
- Hug them, hold them, and respond to their needs and interests.
- Listen carefully as your children communicate with you.
- Read aloud to your children every day, even when they are babies. Play and sing with them often.
- Say “yes” and “I love you” as much as you say “no” and “don’t.”
- Ensure a safe, orderly, and predictable environment, wherever they are.
- Set limits on their behavior when necessary and guide them calmly, not harshly.
Adapted from the Early Childhood-Head Start Task Force, U.S. Departments of Education and Health & Human Services
To learn more about good parenting skills that help your child ‘s healthy learning and development please see the following publications from different organizations:
Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, Inc. (CHDI) handbooks:
Caring for Connecticut ‘s Children, Volume 1: Promoting Health and Safety
Caring for Connecticut ‘s Children, Volume 2: Promoting Healthy Child Development
Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation: Social Emotional Tips for Providers Caring for Infants.
Feeding and Eating
Creating a supportive feeding relationship that is right for each child’s developmental stage, nutritional needs, and neuromuscular growth is the key to the healthy development of your child’s mental health (Zero to Three). For newborns and infants, parents/caregivers should follow the signals of their baby to know when to feed them, and to feed the baby quickly when the baby is hungry, before the baby becomes upset from heavy crying. It also helps if the parent/caregiver allows the baby to control how much he/she wants to eat or stop feeding when the baby does not want to eat or shows that they are full or turns away, refusing to open the mouth, or arching the back.
When a child is developmentally ready (around 3-6 months) the baby’s doctor or pediatrician will suggest that a parent/caregivers begin to gradually offer solid foods, one kind of food at a time. For toddlers, parents/caregivers can give regular healthy meals and snacks as well as introduce new foods in a kind way. Many toddlers will accept new foods if they are given to them over and over, without pressure or reward from the parent/caregiver to eat the new food. Toddlers need more structure and discipline during mealtimes so they learn the social behaviors at mealtime. It is important not to get into fights with your toddler over eating. Eating is one of the few ways that toddlers have control over what is happening to them. Let your toddler know that you respect what and how much they eat. Generally when toddlers have healthy choices, they will choose what they need. To learn more about helping a child with good eating habits, click here or search our resource library.