- Shanna Donhauser
What is Infant Mental Health?
Infant mental health refers to the social and emotional development of children 0-5yo. Professionals with specialization in this field complete specific graduate-level courses that focus on development, attachment, and the psychological experiences of infants and new parents.
Psychotherapists who specialize in infant mental health aim to treat very small children and their families. With specific relationship-oriented interventions, therapists help build and strengthen secure attachment, integrate regulation skills, and navigate both acute and chronic stress and trauma.
When we think of young children, we sometimes ascribe a small view of the world, based on limited developmental capacities. Research shows that young children have a much more complex understanding of the world and of their relationships with significant caregivers. Despite their limited verbal communication skills, young children and preschoolers can signal their needs, fears, worries, and triumphs in a wide variety of ways. Infant mental health specialists look at physical cues (posture, distance, feeding/elimination, sleep, somatic cues), sensory cues (integration issues, sensitivities, etc.), relationship patterns (power struggles, clinging, aggression), and play as communication.
Infant mental health services offer significant value to any family with young children. We often optimize for cognition and intelligence, at the expense of social and emotional development. With an increased focus on academics, even with young children, we miss opportunities to support healthy emotional development. And yet, the alarming rates of autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorders shows that this focus comes at a cost. Young children need many opportunities to develop emotional regulation skills, strengthen relationships, and feel emotionally secure in the world before they are ready to learn "cognitive" skills, like reading.
When we slow down, carefully observe, and thoughtfully reflect on what we see, we notice straight-away that even the smallest child has a lot to “tell” us. And we learn that young children explore and learn so many skills without demanding rigid structure or academic instruction.
In counseling, the lens of infant mental health serves to connect parents to this ability, this superpower: to view their young children as dynamic learners, with incredible capacity, and as active relationship partners. With this lens, you will feel more confident, less ruffled, and more grounded in your ability to parent your child.