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Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health

What is infant and early childhood mental health? From birth to age 5, children develop socially and emotionally. Their behavior develops, too—hopefully, all in a happy, positive way. Infant and early childhood mental health refers to a child’s ability to:

  • Experience, express and control emotion
  • Form close, secure relationships
  • Explore the environment and learn

Mental health specialists have more information than ever devoted to:

  • Promoting healthy social, emotional and behavioral well-being of young children and their families
  • Preventing mental health problems
  • Treating mental health problems of very young children by involving their families

Why is infant and early childhood mental health important?

  • Young children's mental health has a lot to do with the way they act and learn in their home, school and community.
  • Mental health issues are surprisingly common among young children under the age of 6.
  • Up to 10 percent of all young children have significant emotional and behavioral issues.
  • Children are expelled from pre-kindergarten programs over three times more than K12 students.
  • Social, emotional and behavioral issues (such as attention problems or aggressive behavior) hurt young children's chances for school success.
  • Children who do not get help early are more likely to need special education, have poor school performance, or have trouble with delinquency and early school dropout.
  • The risk of serious health problems later in life is greater for young children who experience unpleasant or negative events (such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse; neglect; violence; and natural disasters). Examples of the health problems that can emerge later include depression; alcoholism; drug abuse; suicide attempts; heart, liver and pulmonary diseases; fetal death during adolescent pregnancy; high stress; uncontrollable anger; and family, financial and job problems.

How do you address mental health before the child learns to talk?

Mental health services look at the needs of the infant and other young children in the context of the family—as well as the mental health needs of the parents or caregivers. Improving the relationship between the caregiver and child is very important.

The best results occur when the family is involved in the child’s counseling. This helps caregivers take part in the child’s learning, play sessions, coaching and mentoring. Being present during childcare or preschool may also help point out and improve the child’s issues. Improving a child’s mental health and behavior is most successful when all of the child’s support systems (family, school and community) work together as partners.

What factors may put a child at risk of having early mental health challenges?

An infant or young child is much more likely to have mental or social-emotional health issues when the parent or caregiver:

  • Is unable to meet his or her basic needs
  • Is at or below the poverty level
  • Is socially isolated, or has limited family or community support
  • Is the child of a family in the military
  • Has been the victim of domestic violence
  • Has untreated mental illness, maternal depression or substance abuse issues

Mental health, social and behavior issues are likely to be worse when the infant or young child has:

  • Witnessed violence
  • Been the victim of abuse or neglect
  • Been exposed to substances prenatally, such as alcohol, tobacco, prescription medications or illicit drugs
  • Suffered a single traumatic event or series of events but does not yet meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Been separated from parents

Learn more about mental health for babies (birth - 12 months).

Learn more about mental health for toddlers and children (1 - 3 years).

Learn more about social-emotional development:

Additional information, answers and resources are available from the U.S. government at MentalHealth.gov.