I was at a party recently where a mom casually talked about how her baby didn’t like eye contact. She was unconcerned when she said he usually cried when she would look at him. Alarms went off in my head. My first thought was that it sounded very abnormal. I did some research and discovered that this could be a sign of a mental health issue.
Yes, even infants can have mental health struggles.
Mental health is defined as our emotional and psychological well-being. Some authorities will add social to that definition. Infant mental health focuses on the period from birth to age three. The rapid brain growth that occurs during these early years makes it a critical time for the development of strong mental health. What happens to a child in their earliest years can have an impact on their mental health for the rest of their life.
In addition to an infant who avoids eye contact, other concerning signs of mental health issues in infants are inconsolable crying, extreme sleep problems, lack of interaction with others, not wanting to be held, eating issues, and losing motor, language or social skills.
The things that put a child at risk for mental health issues include having an adolescent mother, a mother who experiences postpartum depression, poverty, parents who have substance abuse problems, parents who have a mental health disorder, trauma, exposure to violence, and absence of a secure relationship with a primary care provider.
An Example of Support
Michigan has taken a proactive approach to supporting infant mental health by providing in-home services to at-risk families. The program utilizes mental health therapists who are Masters-degree prepared and have been trained in infant mental health interventions. They make weekly visits. If the family is in crisis, the frequency of visits can be increased.
The therapists help parents through a variety of methods, including:
- Assist parents with accessing resources in the community
- Teach parents problem-solving and decision-making skills
- Provide information about their child’s growth and development
- Reinforce appropriate interactions between parent and child
- Aid a parent’s ability to provide stimulation to encourage the development
- Guidance for conflict resolution
- Development of healthy coping strategies
- Assist with development of healthier patterns of interaction
- Help parents understand the need for social support
- Provide a connection to resources and formal sources of support.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website page devoted to the program states, “Services reduce the incidence and prevalence of abuse, neglect, developmental delay, behavioral and emotional disorder.”
Families can be enrolled as early as during pregnancy.
Tips to Support Infant Mental Health
- Get prenatal care
- Give your baby lots of attention
- Feed them when they are hungry
- Comfort them when they cry
- Hold them
- Learn their cues, so you know when they are getting overstimulated or tired