As a society, we’re finally beginning to understand how important it is to support mental health for all. But so much of this attention is focused on adults, instead of young children who are developing rapidly and shaping their future mental health.
While it is obviously important to help adults deal with mental health concerns that may be impacting their lives, we also need to be aware of how early experiences and support can help children become confident, resilient, and mentally healthy. Early experiences can also have the opposite effect, however, affecting a child’s developing brain in a negative way.
The good news is that by working together, families and medical professionals can set kids up for success and help them develop their emotional and mental health in a positive way. It is often challenging for families to get help, as specialists are few and far between, most people don’t understand babies’ complex mental health needs, and there is still a stigma associated with seeking help.
A family’s best resource is often their primary care providers—a role that is increasingly filled by nurse practitioners (NPs). NPs are knowledgeable and compassionate individuals who can help children stay on track for mental health development using the principles of infant mental health (IMH).
About Infant Mental Health (IMH)
Infant mental health is a concept that most people (including many clinicians) don’t understand, but it’s actually very simple: the term refers to a child’s rapid mental health development from birth to the age of three. During this time, babies build the foundations of social bonds and learn how to express and manage their emotions. A child’s environment and relationships during this time are crucial for healthy brain development and future mental health.
Importance of Building an Infant’s Developmental Profile
Most parents are aware of the various milestones their child will reach during development, such as laughing, crawling, walking, and talking. Because children develop rapidly, there are numerous milestones that may go unnoticed but are still crucial, such as making eye contact or fussing to demand attention. However, these milestones become clear when a child does not reach them on schedule.
Early environmental factors and supportive, loving care are crucial for an infant’s development profile. Being aware of the normal range for reaching these milestones helps families and primary care providers track a child’s development and spot any potential problems right away.
Mental Health Interventions in Young Children
Not all children will hit key milestones within the expected timeframe. Although this is not necessarily a reason for parents to panic, it could indicate a need for early intervention with the help of a knowledgeable medical and/or mental health professional.
Intervention strategies allow parents and healthcare providers to collaborate and come up with customized plans. Early intervention can prevent many problems later in life that become more difficult to address with time.
Tracking Improvements in Relation to Regular Development
Tracking and interventions are a team effort, especially for high-risk children, such as those born prematurely. Families have to be on the lookout for potential delays and other signs of trouble and must have an experienced, knowledgeable nurse practitioner (such as a neonatal NP) or another primary care provider to help them decide when and how to intervene.
This isn’t to say that parents need to become anxious or hyperfocused on their child’s mental development. But it is important to be aware of the standard development timeline to ensure that each child is set up for success and given the support they need.
The Role of Nurse Practitioners in Promoting Infant Mental Health
Nurse practitioners are starting to take the lead in the field of healthcare as demand grows. As primary care providers, they really get to know their young patients and can advise parents on what to do if their child is delayed in normal development. They can be champions for their patients and help families grow stronger.
More resources are becoming available all the time for nurse practitioners and others who want to learn more about infant mental health and development during these crucial early years. The more society takes early development seriously, the better off the next generation will be in terms of their social and emotional health.