Skip to Content

Division Mental Health Services

Office of Children and Youth

FAQ: Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health

What is Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health?
Infant and early childhood mental health is defined as the healthy social, behavioral and emotional development of a child from birth to 5 years which includes developing the child’s capacity to:

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

In this population of focus there is a growing field of research and practice devoted to the:

  • Promotion of healthy social, emotional, and behavioral well-being of young children and their families;
  • Prevention of mental health problems; and
  • Treatment of the mental health problems of very young children in the context of their families.

(Source: Infant Mental Health Task Force, Zero To Three)

Why is Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health important?

  • Young children's mental health has significant implications for functioning across home, school, and community settings.
  • Mental health challenges are surprisingly common among young children under the age of 6.
    • Studies estimate that between 4 and 10% of all young children have clinically significant emotional and behavioral challenges (Center for Mental Health in Schools, 2005).
    • The expulsion rate among children in prekindergarten programs is more than three times the rate for K-12 students (Gilliam, 2005).
  • The presence of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, such as attention problems or aggression, compromise young children's chances for school success.
  • Early onset of behavior problems without effective intervention is related to the need for special education services, delinquency, and early school drop-out.
  • As the number of adverse events (i.e., physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; neglect; violence; and natural disasters) experienced in childhood increases, the risk for the following health problems increases: 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. (April 2011: Childhood Trauma's Impact on Health Risks, SAMHSA)
  • The kind of attachment present at one year can predict teacher ratings, behavior problems, quality of peer relationships in preschool and social competency of 10 & 11 year olds as well as school achievement at age 16.

(Source: Georgetown University, Center for Child and Human Development)

How do you address mental health when your “client” can’t talk?
Services address the needs of the infant and other young children in the family as well as addressing the mental health needs of the parents. The majority of evidence based practice models that are emerging in the field focus on the caregiver/child relationship.  Intervention primarily occurs within the context of the family, usually through caregiver education, play sessions, support, coaching and mentoring. Mental health consultation in the child care or preschool setting may also be included as a part of the intervention. Mental health intervention is most successful when provided within a partnership with the child and family’s community support systems.

What are factors that may put a child at risk of having early mental health challenges?
Identified Risk Factors Related to Caregiver Functioning include the infant/young child of a caregiver who:

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

Risk Factors Related to Infant/Child include an infant/young child who has:

  • Witnessed violence
  • Been the victim of abuse or neglect
  • Been exposed to substances prenatally
  • Suffered a single traumatic event or series of events but does not yet meet criteria for PTSD
  • Been separated from parents

(Source: Early Childhood Community of Practice Diagnosis and Eligibility Workgroup, 2009)

How do you diagnose a young child?
The Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood, commonly known as DC 0-3, is used to complement the DSM. There are also crosswalks developed between the DC 0-3 and the DSM that are used for billing purposes. The CANS 0-5 is also used for decision making support regarding the intensity of service need.

Office of Children and Youth Links