Early Intervention: Building a Strong Foundation for Positive Infant Mental Health

We’ve all seen it, the toddler at the grocery store attempting to explore something novel on the shelf only to be jerked away by their arm and yelled at by a caregiver, in language I will not repeat.  But the message is clear…. “You get on my nerves, I resent having to watch you, you interfere with my time, you’re not important for me to find out what caught your attention”.     Another glance at the toddler and you can see on his face that this isn’t the first time it’s happened.  Their eyes are windows to their soul and often you can see the emptiness, hopelessness and simmering anger reflected.

Infant Mental Health (IMH) and healthy social emotional development is the foundation for early brain development, which is everything from how relationships are formed, how children regulate their emotion and handle conflict, to how children learn.   Infant Mental Health is the developing capacity of the child from birth to experience, regulate, express emotions and form close and secure interpersonal relationships.  (Infant Mental Health and Early Care and Education Providers- The Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning).

parental engagement

Did you know that babies can show signs of depression through inconsolable crying, slow growth patterns and sleep problems? (Joan Luby,”Depression” , Handbook of Infant Mental Health Guildford Press, 2000)  And that 1 in 5 children has a diagnosable mental disorder, but factors that predict mental health problems can be identified in the early years.  (Jane Knitzer and Jill Leifkowitz, Helping the most Vulnerable Infants, Toddlers, and their Families. Pathways to Early School Success Issue Brief No. 1). The relationship between the parent/caregiver and infant is important in early development.    Babies rely on their parents/caregivers to help them figure out their world and learn to be secure in it.  Infant mental health issues can manifest physically, as mentioned above, or through delayed development, aggressive /impulsive behaviors, fears and attachment disorders, when that secure relationship is not formed.

Research also shows that healthy social-emotional development is linked to success in kindergarten and continues through the elementary grades.  When children are not secure in their relationships, they have difficulty learning.  And if a child never learns self regulatory behaviors, being able to sit calmly in a classroom is extremely challenging.

We also know that the mental health of the parents/caregivers have a great impact on children.   These conditions affect the bond between parent and child making them less able to provide appropriate stimulation and interactions. ( Julie Cohen, Zero to Three Policy Center, 2009)   Infants of clinically depressed mothers often withdraw from caregivers which affects their language skills as well as their physical and cognitive development. ( Ngozi Okunaku, Improving Maternal and Infant Mental Health: Focus on Maternal Depression, UCLA 2005)

Often the infants and toddlers in early intervention are those who have experienced, or continue to experience trauma/ neglect.   These children   cannot speak for themselves to tell what they have experienced.   As providers, we cannot be naive and think that the trauma they have experienced has not or will not affect them.The Part C Early Intervention programs are able to  work with eligible children and families to build their capacity to form healthy relationships and address developmental delays early at their most critical time of brain development.  In Early Intervention, we model, engage and coach parents on developmentally appropriate interactions with their child.  Research has shown that by combining coaching and parent education there is a significant change in a child’s skills.

Early Intervention is essential and can make a big difference. There is a strong link between a child’s trauma symptoms and the amount of exposure a child has had to traumatic events.  Interventions and supports must address both immediate needs and long-term developmental and relationship issues.  The longer we wait to recognize and respond the more likely the impact on a child’s development will be negative.  The cost of special education and supports far exceeds the cost of early intervention.