What Is Infant Mental Health?

September 16, 2020

By Miller Shivers, PhD

The term Infant Mental Health sounds puzzling and may leave you wondering how or why would an infant have mental health needs. However, the field of Infant Mental Health refers to infants and children from birth to age 5 and their families. It is a long established discipline based on attachment theory and uses the relationship between the infant/child and their caregiver(s) as an area of focus. If a mother isn’t feeling her best, then her infant or toddler is likely feeling that effect and may be showing signs of negative behaviors. Conversely, if you have a fussy newborn, a father cannot feel his best to soothe and manage the behavior. The infant/child and the caregiver influence each other’s behaviors. Infant Mental Health clinicians work with both aspects to restore harmony and increase functionality for the family.

What Does Infant Mental Health Look Like at Lurie Children’s? 

We offer a program, Lurie Children’s Little Ones, dedicated to infants and young children and their caregivers where we put Infant Mental Health into practice.  We see referrals for infants displaying fussiness, picky feeding and eating, sleep concerns and general soothing concerns. In toddlers and preschoolers, referrals are often around behavioral concerns, potty training woes, early anxious and inflexible behavior, picky eating and sleep concerns. No matter the presenting concern, we work with the family to create a plan that is mutually beneficial to both the infant/child and the caregivers. 

Take Mona and her parents, for example. Mona’s parents sought an evaluation for their 2-year-old in the Little Ones clinic due to concerns about her demanding behavior and tantrums. It became clear through the assessment process that Mona was feeling anxious and needing things in her environment a certain way in order to feel her best. Her parents were exhausted trying to appease her, or risk a meltdown. Mona was upset a great deal and parents were at a loss as to how to help her, and they were no longer enjoying her company much of the time. The clinician and the family created a plan for them which focused on helping Mona be more flexible and helping her parents respond to her behavior in a way that improved her behavior. At the same time, the clinician and family worked to improve positive interactions between Mona and her parents to restore their relationship which had been damaged by the negative behaviors. The family worked diligently and Mona’s behavior improved and her parents felt more confident to manage her anxiety in the future. More importantly, their home felt less stressful to them and all were feeling better.

If your infant, toddler or preschooler is in need of an assessment or intervention strategies, please call 1.800.KIDS.DOC (1.800.543.7362) and ask for an appointment with Lurie Children’s Little Ones. Or, learn more about the program here.