Child Infant Mental Health

Child Infant Mental Health4es blog 17

“A person’s a person no matter how small” – Dr Seuss 

What is infant and child mental health? Infant Mental Health is ‘the optimal social, emotional, and cognitive well-being of children ages 0 to 3 and developed by secure and stable relationships with nurturing caregivers’. (Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health®)

The māori perspective of mental health is depicted in ‘Te Whare Tapa Whā’ developed by Mason Durie in the ’80s (2). Whereby all the ‘parts’ of a person’s health is integral to the whole. Many would share this view that body, brain and spirit and even whānau and environment cannot be divided neatly into parts and that health is a complex interaction of different aspects of a person’s being.

This leads us to understand that children and infants’ mental health can be impacted positively by protective factors and negatively by risk factors. It also leads to understanding that mental health as a child or infant can also impact positively or negatively on other areas of health and development. Research has also shown that infant and child mental health impacts linger into adulthood.

As a Speech and Language Therapist, I have over the years observed how innate features of the child and parent along with parenting styles and parent-child relationship affects a child’s development. There is an interaction in these things. The child and parent are engaged in a dance, managing all these aspects of each other within their relationship.

Many years ago, I was at a preschool observing. I saw a mother dropping off her four year old child. I had worked with the family earlier on in the child’s life when she was not meeting communication milestones. The mother was a difficulty parent to engage, sensitive and defensive and in the end declined further intervention. The child greeted a teacher and then moved to the table where the children were having morning tea and started eating and interacting with the other children. Before her mum left, she called the child to come to her (Requiring the girl to leave the table squeezing past other children that had sat down after her) and knelt down and gave her a big hug. As she stood up to leave the child began to cry loudly and cling.

The incident surprised me and I wondered about the actions of both the mother and the child. It had seemed to me that the child was secure in the environment and engaged in an activity. I would never advise a mother to sneak away but I wondered why the mother disrupted her child from the activity so significantly for the goodbye. I wondered too at the apparent calm and eagerness the child exhibited at arrival. How did the mother feel seeing this? Perhaps she wasn’t really taking notice of her daughter’s action and reactions in this moment? Or perhaps she saw the eagerness as a rejection and felt the need to assert their relationship before departing? I wondered about the child and how she felt. Was she really as calm as she originally appeared? Perhaps the daughter would have been anxious and cried even if her mother had just called to her and waved goodbye? Was she confused at being pulled away only to then be told goodbye? I also wondered if there was a social-emotional component to the child’s communication delays.

In a previous blog, I discussed research on the impacts of maternal and non-maternal childcare on children’s development. The NICHD study (3) reported that the biggest impact on child development was the quality of parental care and home environments. Given this, how can we ensure the quality of the care in the home environment? How can we support our parents to be better parents?

New Zealand is fortunate to have an early childhood curriculum that seems to value child and infant mental health at its core. “Underpinnings of Te Whāriki Is a vision that children are competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society”. It informs us of the pivotal role of early childhood educators in identifying mental health protective and risk factors and their key role as caregivers to delivering mentally healthy environments for the infants and children that they care for.

From my experience since arriving back in New Zealand, most early education centres are using the key caregiver or primary caregiver model. I see many benefits to this model both emotionally and practically. This makes it important that we ensure that early childhood educators themselves are emotionally supported. Just as a stressed out parent has more difficulties in helping children manage their emotions, a stressed out teacher will demonstrate similar difficulties. Certainly they require understanding of infant and child mental health, but they also need a safe space to reflect on their own reactions and emotions to the children in their care and their own children (if they have them). They need time to reflect on how they were parented and the impacts of this.

Kent Hoffman, one of the co-founders of Circle Of Security® stated in a recent interview (4) “The really wonderful news of all of our research is that parents, even those with horrific histories, when offered a clear path toward security, tend to choose security.” Kent Hoffman and the other co-founders of Circle of Security® found that with a ‘road map’ and a chance to reflect, parents were able to move towards more secure relationships with their children. These same road maps can be used by early childhood educators and others in a child’s life to improve their responsiveness to their needs.


Guest Author: Alison Bruce, Speech and Language Therapist

Your Potential Speech and Language Therapy

Alison has spent the last year working in the child development service in Nelson. Prior to that she spent over six years working in a remote area of North West Australia as a generalist speech pathologist. Before moving to Australia Alison worked in both private and public services. This has given her a knowledge of a range of areas of speech and language therapy including early development of communication and early intervention.


  2. Ministry of Health ‘Māori Health Models’
  3. The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD): Findings for Children up to Age 4 1/2 Years (2006) U.S Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
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