Most young children have rarely crossed paths with psychologists or psychiatrists. However, a growing amount of research is focusing on early development of the brain, and more young children – even infants – are receiving professional mental health services.
It’s not known just how many pre-kindergarten children are being seen, but experts say infant/toddler mental health is becoming mainstream.
Psychological research of young children is a hot topic right now at major universities. In 2005, a task force was launched by the American Academy of Pediatrics, with at least part of its focus on pushing more infant/toddler mental health intervention.
Some may question the seriousness of this, especially given Americans’ tendency to over-pathologize any sign of the slightest slip in mood.
Before passing judgment, however, it’s important to understand what infant/toddler mental health is all about, according to Ngozi Onunaku, policy analyst with Zero to Three, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering mental wellness for preschool-aged children.
“When you put the words ‘infant’ and ‘mental-health treatment’ next to each other, that’s really scary to some people,” Onunaku explains. “People think of medication and, from a more comical standpoint, they think of a baby on the couch.”
In fact, according to Onunaku, a more accurate way to talk about this issue is to call it infant/toddler mental wellness. “It’s more helpful to see mental health as a continuum. There are kids who need intense interventions, there are kids in the middle who are at risk for a problem and then at the other end you have your everyday, typical children who also need their caregivers to promote mental health and wellness.
Everyone can benefit from research about infant mental development – namely, that infants are sentient and perceptive beings whose development can be highly influenced in the first weeks, months and years of life. While all humans gain some benefits from this knowledge, there are certain issues that drive most parents to seek help for their children.
The primary reasons parents seek the help of mental-health professionals, eating and sleeping are at the top, according to Dr. Thomas Anders, an infant psychiatrist at the University of California, Davis M.I.N.D. Institute and president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Often toddlers are seen more because of developmental delays or behavioral problems such as temper tantrums. Other reasons infants and toddlers are seen include abuse, adoption or other parental separation, premature birth and trauma due to illness or a natural disaster, or maternal depression.
“Most of the treatment for children under 3 or 4 is what we call parent-infant therapy,” says Anders, who studies infant sleep, adding that, “Medications are very rarely used in this age group.”