What do we mean by “infant mental health?”

Infant mental health (IMH) is synonymous with social and emotional development in our youngest children. Social and emotional development involves skills such as self confidence, curiosity, motivation, persistence, self control, and trust–all of which affect future learning, growth, and success. The development of all of these traits begins in infancy and within the context of relationships. Emotional and social milestones include a child’s ability to experience, regulate and express emotions, and form close and secure interpersonal relationships. A child’s capacities to identify their own feelings, experience empathy for another and constructively manage strong emotions are skills that begin in early childhood and support later learning.

Why care about social and emotional development?

The early preschool years are a critical time for skill formation and lay the foundation for future success in school and beyond.  Practice-based evidence and scientific research have demonstrated the importance of early experiences as well as the interactions between genetics and environment.

Over the last twenty-five years we have gained a greater understanding about what can hinder and what can promote healthy social and emotional development. Children who are unable to attain early social and emotional milestones do not do well in early school years, and research indicates that children who start behind tend to stay behind. These children are at a higher risk for school problems and juvenile delinquency. Research and experiential knowledge from the field of infant and early childhood mental health confirm that a child’s emotional development forms the foundation for all later development and sets the stage for relationships and readiness to learn. Research also shows that children participating in “enriched early childhood programs are more likely to complete school, and much less likely to require welfare benefits, become teen parents, or participate in criminal activities. Rather, they become productive adults.” (Heckman, James: Ounce of Prevention, 2000, Chicago, Illinois)

Infant Mental Health in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health (WI-AIMH) is focused on promoting the healthy social and emotional development of all Wisconsin children from birth through age five. The Wisconsin Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Plan presents a blueprint for a comprehensive system of care that includes prevention, early intervention, and treatment. The goal is not to set up another silo for services, but rather to weave infant and early childhood principles into the fabric of all systems that touch the lives of young children.

The developing infant and early childhood system of care in Wisconsin includes the critical components of public awareness, training, service delivery, and policy. One of our goals is to provide parents and people working with young children and their families (such as child care workers, home visitors, and pediatricians) the knowledge, skills, and practices that support healthy social and emotional development. All people working with young children need to know early warning signs and how to use screening tools. Referral processes need to be developed and streamlined. Finally, the mental health services for young children and their families must be accessible, affordable, and based on models that result in positive outcomes.