Ordinarily, we don't usually think of infants when the term "mental health" comes to mind. But rather, we think about adolescents or adults as those most likely to be affected. However, research tells us that today's society presents substantial risks to the mental health of all people, even our very youngest. Think for a moment about some of these risks... child abuse, poverty, homelessness, family violence, broken homes, substance abuse, not to mention the often inconsistent (or non-existent!) care provided by a loving adult.
These issues can affect the development of infants and toddlers directly and indirectly at a time when there is potential for rapid brain growth and development. How much of the damage that takes place will be permanent or perhaps not show up until later in life? How much of a child's potential will be lost or diminished? It's hard to say. What research has shown us is that quality, early childhood programs can provide the possibility of better outcomes for infants and toddlers who are at risk. This would depend on several factors present in these programs, however.
One of these would be sensitive caregiving. This would mean responding sensitively and in a timely fashion to the basic needs of the infant… physically, emotionally, and cognitively. These needs aren’t always expressed through vocalization or crying. The care provider must be enough in tune with each infant to anticipate needs and pick up on them from body language, demeanor, and posture. Many of the most important needs can be unspoken and under demanded, but they exist nonetheless.
Oftentimes a child will learn to demand less and express less distress due to repeated lack of attention. The needs will still exist, but with more subtle evidence, requiring careful and diligent observation. This is most certainly done best in primary caregiving situations, where continuity of care provides ample and repeated close interaction with only a few of the same infants throughout the day, every day.
It is awesome to see this in action. Most of the conversation in the room is with the children, not amongst caregivers. They are totally engrossed in interacting with those in their care. They use every opportunity for face-to-face communication, paying close attention to changes in body movements and vocalizations, and spending time holding, cuddling, and comforting. Even when the infants are playing on their own, there is frequent physical touch and emotional recharging, as well as on-going conversations.
Just how much of an impact are these amazing caregivers making? Continuing long-term research will provide these and other answers. In the meantime, we, as adults, need to continue to be advocates for children at risk, providing assistance, support, and sometimes an escape from the devastating effects.