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Supporting Infant Mental Health... It's Everyone's Responsibility

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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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.

feeding infant

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.

caregiver interacting with infant

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.

baby and caregiver with toys


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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

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Guest Monday, 17 June 2019