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The Foundation of Mental Health: It Starts at Birth

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Date: March 15, 2024
Category: Mental Health

Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health is the Foundation of Life

In today’s news, references to “mental health” most often focus on child and adult mental health – with the mental health of infants and young toddlers often overlooked or misunderstood. However, given that important attachments are formed in the first years of life, focusing on infant and early childhood mental health provides an important opportunity to establish and enhance the foundation of their emotional and social growth and development. To meet these needs, there are several practitioners, providers, and other professionals who dedicate their careers to advancing the mental health of infants, toddlers, caregivers, and their families.

Infants and toddlers can experience mental health conditions, just like every age group. That’s why it’s so important to address their mental health needs as soon as one suspects there may be an issue, rather than waiting until they are older. Nurturing healthy brain development, starting at birth, can help to mitigate serious mental health issues that may appear in adulthood. According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences early in life can impair brain architecture, with negative effects lasting into adulthood.”

Why Early Childhood Mental Health Matters

Experiences in the first years of life can impact the trajectory of a child’s life, setting the course for future health and well-being. The structures of the brain that influence later learning are mostly formed by the age of two, which means some of the most important brain development occurs before a child ever picks up a pencil, reads a book, or goes to school. Parents and caregivers play an important, protective role by providing positive learning experiences, buffering young children from the stresses of hardship or threat, and nurturing the early development of adaptive skills that are the building blocks of resilience.

Understanding why early childhood mental health matters is especially important because there is a serious youth mental health crisis happening in our country today – and it’s not just affecting older kids, or school-aged children; it’s starting earlier and among younger children. According to the CDC, one in six children ages 2-8 have a diagnosable mental health condition. Another large study suggests that at least one in 10 children under the age of five have a significant emotional, behavioral, or relationship problem.

It may be surprising to parents and caregivers that even at very young ages, significant mental health issues may occur – often at rates similar to older children. It is important to effectively respond to the mental health needs of the youngest children by talking to them about their feelings and responding to their emotional needs. Very young kids may not have the words to express their feelings, but instead show it through behaviors such as crying or yelling. While most parents may attribute these types of behaviors to other factors, not all these behaviors are simply a “phase.” Persistent feelings or behaviors that interfere with a young child’s ability to connect with others, appropriately express his/her emotions, and have the overall ability to enjoy life are important signs to monitor. These types of concerns may be important to discuss with a healthcare provider to immediately address and/or mitigate any further challenges down the road.

How SAMHSA’s Programs Support this Critical Age Group

SAMHSA funds three grant programs that serve children birth through 12 years of age who are at risk of experiencing serious emotional disturbances.

  1. The Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health Grant program works to improve outcomes for children, from birth up to age 12, by developing, maintaining, or enhancing infant and early childhood mental health promotion, intervention, and treatment services.
  2. The Project Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health, also known as Project LAUNCH, promotes the wellness of young children, from birth to eight years of age, by addressing the social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and behavioral aspects of their development -- preparing young children to thrive in school and beyond.
  3. The National Center of Excellence (CoE) for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (IECMHC) provides technical assistance and professional development to increase access to high quality mental health consultation (MHC) throughout the country. The CoE for IECMHC works with, and responds to, individuals, organizations, and agencies across the nation who are looking for support with MHC. These supports can range from general questions to agencies looking for assistance in developing or creating a MHC program, to locating a mental health consultant in their area, as well as offering general and technical support on MHC. Through a variety of interactive services and programs, the CoE for IECMHC also supports the infant and early childhood mental health workforce and builds capacities through trainings, webinars, toolkits, and other resources.

SAMHSA’s IECMHC Helps Young Children and their Families

As outlined above, IECMHC is a prevention-based approach that pairs a mental health consultant with adults who work with infants and young children in the various settings where the children learn and grow. These can be settings such as in-home day care, early child care locations, preschools, home visiting, early intervention and in their homes. The MHC equips caregivers to facilitate children’s healthy social and emotional development.

Mental Health Consultants:

  • support strong relationships and supportive environments for children;
  • focus on building the capacity of the adults in children’s lives to understand young children’s social emotional development;
  • are highly trained licensed, or license-eligible, professionals with specialized knowledge in childhood development, the effects of stress and trauma on families, the importance of attachment for young children, and the impacts of adult mental health on developing children; and
  • use a strengths-based approach and consider all levels of influence to support young children and their caregivers.

IECMHC works best when teachers, families, and other individuals within the child’s environment work together to support the child. IECMHC has been shown to “improve children’s social skills and emotional functioning, promote healthy relationships, reduce challenging behaviors, reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions, improve classroom management skills, and reduce provider stress, burnout, and turnover.” Anyone interested in finding a mental health consultant in their area, can visit the CoE for IECMH website and complete the Technical Assistance form.

Infant and early childhood mental health is the foundation of life. Starting off with a strong and healthy foundation helps children cultivate the developmental and resiliency skills they will need to become well-functioning members of society. It is the duty of all of us to support and look after our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable population.

Additional Resources

For more information on SAMHSA’s grant programs that promote and support the health and wellness of young children and their families, please visit: Early Childhood Mental Health Programs.

Early childhood resources for parents, caregivers, educators, mental health consultants and others can be found on the SAMHSA publications website and on the CoE for IECMH website.