Infant mental health

Elizabeth Finley on fostering good emotional health from infancy.

Since joining the Leeds Infant Mental Health Service, many have asked me, ‘Do babies have mental health?’ This is often followed up by some remark about how babies are too young to have mental health.

To answer this question I suggest we think about what mental health is. It is not merely about mental illness. Everybody has mental health just as everybody has varying degrees of health and wellbeing. Perhaps if it were called the Infant Mental Wellbeing Service it wouldn’t entice such improvident questions.

As a service we look at babies’ cues for mental wellbeing. An amazing project which came from the Leeds Infant Mental Health Service is the Early Attachment Observation. This asks the primary caregiver three questions; to describe their relationship with their baby in three words, to describe their biggest fear about the relationship and to express the best thing about their relationship. The answers to these questions can say a lot about the caregiver-infant relationship and how this impacts the infant’s wellbeing.

Good caregiver-infant relationships promote good infant mental health. Thinking about infants and their needs and cues in situations is central to understanding babies and promoting responsiveness in the caregiver. This, in turn, enhances mental health by creating a secure safe environment where the infant feels understood. Understanding infant mental health is about bringing it back to how the infant must be feeling in a situation. I remember seeing a social media post on a ‘breastfeeding mums’ group that summed up understanding and considering how the infant must be feeling perfectly:

'I wonder how uncomfortable a nappy must be after 9 months suspended naked in fluid.
I wonder how cold a cot must be after 3 trimesters of warmth.
I wonder how unpleasant hunger must be when your belly was always full in the womb.
I wonder this, and I stop wondering why new-borns want to be held and fed so much.'

If anybody was left helplessly cold, lonely and hungry, their mental health would be impacted by stress and isolation. A baby looks to their caregiver to create that bond of empathy and responsiveness. Responding to babies’ needs is not ‘spoiling them’, nor is the baby being manipulative. Babies are trying to make sense of and react to a new world. Understanding babies’ cues encourages connections: connections with the caregiver, connections in the brain, and connections with the world. 

Do infants have mental health? Yes, and I hope to promote and share this understanding, to foster good emotional health into childhood and adulthood.

- Elizabeth Finley, Assistant Psychologist, Leeds

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber