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The College of St. Scholastica

We know the early childhood years are foundational for our long term development. In fact, 90 percent of the human brain’s capacity is developed before age five. By age three the child’s brain forms three quadrillion connections. These connections, fostered through nurturing and predictable relationships with others, set the stage for sensory, linguistic and cognitive functions.

If the baby’s needs for access to a loving relationship are not met, the negative ramifications last a lifetime. Though often overlooked in mental health discussions, infant mental health is critical to a person’s development and upbringing.

To learn more about this intriguing field, we spoke with Dr. Mary Ann Marchel, infant mental health specialist and professor in The College of Saint Scholastica’s (CSS) Master of Social Work (MSW) program. Keep reading to discover what she reveals about infants’ needs and the overwhelming importance of the first years of life.

What is infant mental health?

From the first day of life, human beings enter the world with the need for “connection” with others. Dr. Marchel explains that caregivers are recognized as intrinsic infant mental health participants. Young babies depend them for survival and wellbeing.

Optimal infant mental health relies on a healthy partnership between the baby and caregiver. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the social and emotional competence of infants in their biological, relationship and cultural contexts. It’s built upon the baby’s cognitive development as well as the social and emotional support within the relationship between child and caregiver. While you may think of therapy sessions and other forms of treatment when you hear the term “mental health,” these assumptions aren’t correct in the context of infants.

“Treatment for infant mental health is not something that is done ‘to’ the child. It is not a child lying on a couch for a psychotherapeutic session,” Dr. Marchel says. She adds that effective infant mental health care involves supporting the mental states of both the child and caregiver. “Hence, presence and sensitivity to the needs of both members of the relationship are attended to.”

As you can see, infant mental health encompasses much more than just the baby — the caregiver plays an equally important role in the relationship. There can be serious consequences when the child’s needs are not met. Supporting the ability of the caregiver to be emotionally available to the child increases the likelihood that the child’s emotional and physical needs will be met yielding positive outcomes.

The big and small effects of infant mental health

Because the first years of a person’s life are critical to their development, positive and negative impact can last a lifetime. Early intervention efforts target the child, the caregiver and the relationship. Components of intervention include the following:

  • Meeting the infant’s biological and emotional needs
  • Sensitivity to the demands experienced by caregivers engaged in “parenting”
  • Emphasis on building the capacity of the caregiver-child relationship through shared observation, wondering and support.

Consider that experiencing adversity during the first years of life can chemically alter a person’s genetics forever. Exposure to chronically stressful living environments, which can be caused by poverty, abuse or maternal depression, can also damage an infant’s developing brain. These can open the door to mental illness later on.

“When the social-emotional needs of infants go unmet, there is a likelihood of mental health conditions emerging in later years,” Dr. Marchel explains. There’s also risk of impeded brain development and gaps in normal developmental milestones. As you can see, there are plenty of ways individuals can be affected — but what does it mean when entire communities are affected?

“The long-term impact of this reverberates across micro to macro levels of growing and sustaining a competent, productive workforce,” Dr. Marchel says. “As a country and a world, our economic and emotional health is dependent upon how we nurture and support infants during critical periods in brain development.”

On a large scale, unmet infant mental health needs can result in a slew of societal problems. Aside from the sheer loss of human potential, inadequate infant mental health support can yield monetary ramifications.

“Through not meeting an infant’s needs, the stage is set for more costly conditions to develop. Therefore, a missed opportunity in investing early results in paying more later,” Dr. Marchel explains. “Early investment is the key.”

Studies about early childhood investments indicate a return of $4 to $9 for every dollar spent. “This is money that would have otherwise been necessary to support special education and/or mental health services during school age and teen years,” Dr. Marchel adds.

What can be done?

You don’t have to be a parent or a mental health professional in order to support infant mental health. If you’re interested in helping the cause, you’ll be happy to hear that there are multiple ways for you to get involved.

“Several organizations advocate for infant mental health by supporting training, policy and research efforts,” Dr. Marchel says. “My suggestion for those interested in helping infant mental health is to connect with some of these organizations and take action politically.” She recommends Zero to Three, an advocacy and outreach organization supporting infants, young children and their families.

These types of organizations need passionate individuals like you to support and advocate for their causes. Educate yourself about the ideas and initiatives surrounding infant mental health in order to become an advocate for infants in your life, in your community and around the world.

Mental health matters for all ages

From infancy through adulthood, mental health matters. The cost of ignoring infants’ social and emotional needs is too great, the risks too high. Studies show what happens when infant mental health is adequately supported — and now it’s up to us to ensure it happens.

Does this discussion have you thinking about becoming an agent of change in your community? Social workers are on the frontlines, making impacts both big and small. And while social workers help individuals, many expand their reach by helping entire communities.

Learn more about how social workers can expand horizons for segments of the population by checking out our article, “How macro social work can transform communities on a large scale.”