Do infants even have mental health?

Mental health actually begins in utero as early brain development can be impacted by genetics & environmental factors. Once infants are born, their 

mental health continues to develop. The foundations of all domains of human development are laid in the first several years of life. 

Basic to healthy development are the capacities to love, to feel, to develop a sense of self, and to adapt to one’s environment. Infant (and early childhood) mental health is the social and emotional well-being of the very young child in the context of family relationships, beginning at birth and extending through the preschool years. 

Here are some quick facts about early mental health:

  • 90% of brain development occurs in the first 5 years.
  • There are over 40 different developmental and mental health disorders that can be diagnosed in children from 0-5.
  • Researchers estimate roughly 10-14% of children age 0-5 experience an emotional or behavioural disturbance. 

How you parent impacts your infant and young child’s brain development and mental health. This is not to scare you, I promise! It’s to help parents be aware of their child’s development and wellbeing; know what to look for; and trust your instincts! 

Yes, the majority of the brain develops in the first 5 years… but one of the coolest things about the human brain is that it is incredibly good at adapting and forming new neural connections, throughout the lifespan! That means it’s never too late! 

The brain is most “flexible” or “plastic” in the early years, which is why infant & early childhood mental health is such an important topic to educate about. The sooner we can provide support to those who need it, the better! 

When should parents seek support? At what age can infants be assessed?

Infants as young as 1 month old can be assessed. That being said, parents can seek support as early as they would like! Having foundational knowledge about infant mental health, attachment, temperament, healthy development (and more), can be an incredibly valuable & proactive approach to supporting your child. 

How do I know if my child needs an assessment?

There are many reasons a parent may seek out an assessment for their infant/child and all of them are valid! Assessments are a tool used to provide us with specific information about your individual child and their development. Assessments are not only used to identify problems. Some reasons parents may want this information is to:

  • Better understand your child’s development across different domains
  • Help support your child’s development, including specific developmental goals, in culturally appropriate and strength-based ways
  • Help parents/caregivers understand the types of experiences their child needs to support their unique development
  • Identify areas of delay/difference/concern in development or behaviour
  • Better understand and respond to your child’s behaviour by assessing which areas of skill need support and how to do so in a strengths-based way (behaviour is about skill, not will)
  • Provide insight and strategies while waiting for further assessment or referral by specialists

It’s important to understand that there are many benefits to assessment such as early identification, monitoring, and intervention of developmental differences or concerns, providing parents with reassurance about their child’s development, equipping parents with knowledge and strategies to feel more proactive about their child’s development, providing developmentally appropriate strategies and experiences for parents to try with their children, and more.

The only ‘negative’ outcome I like to make parents aware of is a heightened sensitivity or concern around “normal” development and changes. Assessments are not intended to create fear or hyper-vigilance but rather to help you, and others, better understand your child and how best to support their development. I am dedicated to making sure parents feel supported and well informed prior to and following assessments.

Where can I learn more? 

Infant & Early Mental Health Promotion (Sick Kids Hospital) 

Parenting in Ottawa 

Alberta Family Wellness Initiative 

Zero to Three 

Center on the Developing Child (Harvard University)

Maine Association for Infant Mental Health