What is “infant” (0-5 years) mental health?

The term “infant mental health” can seem strange because it is difficult to differentiate the mental life of infants (this includes zero to five-year-olds) from their parents and caregivers. However, it is also abolsolutely true also that infants do have their own minds which deserve recognition and attention.  

We also know that very important parts of our minds are established in infancy and childhood which have a big impact on our lives in the future.  Therefore infant mental health services are really important! Although, instead of “infant mental health”, I quite like the term “pēpi ora”, which is more holistic and perhaps less pathologising, locates our practice in Aotearoa New Zealand and incorporates mātauranga Māori.

In infant mental health, we regard the relationship between the infant and their caregivers as key, becase infants are so dependent on that relationship to mediate their world, and to build their minds.  This is in fact true for all children but more so for younger ones.

If you come to see me about your baby or young child, I will usually see you together for three sessions, following an initial appointment with you.  For preschoolers, a typical session would be your child leading the play for 20 minutes and then you leading the play for 20 minutes.  I will observe and give you feedback about what I think the child is telling us about how they experience their world, which will guide our discussion about how to make sensitive parenting decisions and what kind of further support would be beneficial.

Koanga Tupu is the infant mental health service for zero to four-year-olds for the Auckland District Health Board.  This is a comprehensive and specialist service which is free for those who meet criteria and live in the ADHB catchment area.  There are equivalent services at other DHBs.

I am able to refer to this service, and so is your GP and Plunket, so please follow up with one of us if you are concerned about your infant or young child or your relationship with them, and would like to know how to support them.

If you would like some more information about development of infants and young children, I recommend the website www.zerotothree.com.

Photo by Jakub Krizon Unsplash


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