Written by Counselling Psychologist Jonathan Bosworth
The World Association for Infant Mental Health (WAIMH) defines infant mental health as: “as the ability to develop physically, cognitively, and socially in a manner which allows them [infants] to master the primary emotional tasks of early childhood without serious disruption caused by harmful life events. Because infants grow in a context of nurturing environments, infant mental health involves the psychological balance of the infant-family system.”
Why infant mental health?
The first thought that may cross your mind is : “Why is infant mental health important?”
I hope to provide the answers to this important question thoughout this series of articles. Initially I would like to share some of the reasons for focusing on the psychological wellbeing of babies, which may start to answer your question.
1. Babies should be seen as little people
For a long time many health professionals believed that babies lack an in-depth mental life. For this reason they neglected to focus on infant mental health and rather focussed on other areas of babies’ development, most often their physical development. However more recently there has been a lot of evidence indicating that infants are a lot more aware of what goes on in the world around them, and that they actually have a very rich emotional life. In this sense babies should be seen as little people with their own minds, experiences and views of the world. As seen in the above WAIMH definition – and to be expanded upon in future articles – this emotional life has a large social component. The first way we get to know ourselves and our world is through our immediate social relationships and circumstances, mostly commonly our family.
2. The formation of a baby’s personality
Getting to know ourselves and to form what makes each of us uniquely us is definitely something that starts in infancy. The World Association of Infant Mental Health (WAIMH) focuses on the period from conception to three years of age. Many prominent psychological theorists propose that our personalities are formed or even set in the first two or five years of life. Our experiences in infancy therefore may play a huge role in the development of our personalities and later mental health. Because of the basis for our personalities and psychological strengths and weaknesses being laid down at this age, it is often this period when our inner conflicts are more accessible and more readily able to be processed and mastered. As we move into childhood and adulthood we may become more set in our ways and the factors underlying our difficulties may become less accessible. Infancy may thus be a key developmental period for the promotion of mental wellness and prevention of later difficulties.
3. Not just mental health
Infancy is not just a critical period for emotional and social development but also cognitive (intellectual) and physical development. The former and the latter are certainly not unrelated. There is a complex interplay between emotional and social development, and cognitive and physical development. In other words, infant mental health can have a large impact on other areas of development and can even be related to the frequency of illness and medical difficulties in infancy but also later life. The latter is something that is probably specifically on your mind as a visitor to a baby website focussing on sleep and feeding problems.
In future articles I plan to expand on some of the concepts touched on here and also, as aforementioned, to further attend to the importance of focusing on infant mental health. I hope to provoke thought and to empower parents and caregivers to be able to better provide for their babies and themselves in this challenging but rewarding stage of life for babies, parents and families.
Look out for my future articles on the following infant mental health related topics:
• The parent-infant bond
• Parental mental health
• Getting help with mental health
• The parental couple
• Sleep and feeding troubles;
• And more
For further resources on infant mental health, parenting and other psychology topics: