What is infant mental health?

By Associate Psychologist Olivia Smith

Unfortunately, the mental health of infants is often overlooked or misunderstood by most of us. One thing we do know, however, is that early experiences affect brain development and can shape a person’s mental health in the long-term. 

Infancy is regarded as a critical time for the development of a range of skills, and this includes emotional and social development. Infants learn from those around them how to experience, express and manage their emotions, how to form secure close relationships with others, and how to explore and learn from the world around them. 

Signs that an infant is experiencing good mental health include: being engaged in their environment and with those around them, and managing difficult emotions with the support of their caregiver. Although they cannot articulate to us that something is wrong, they will often communicate distress through significant changes in behaviour (such as in feeding, crying and sleep patterns). Some infants are more at risk of poor mental health due to factors such as medical complications, temperament, adverse events, and their caregiver’s own wellbeing.  

Attachment plays a key role in helping a child navigate stresses. Attachment refers to how consistently responsive caregivers are in meeting the emotional and physical needs of their child. A ‘secure attachment’ can act as a ‘buffer’ of sorts to help limit the long-term impact of possible adverse events a child may experience. This can be fostered by a caregiver:

  • engaging in play with their child
  • repeating the sounds their infant makes
  • using a calm and soothing voice and rocking their child gently when distressed
  • returning an infant’s smile

While we cannot always change the life circumstances in which we find ourselves, we can still foster a secure relationship with our infant. Both prevention and early intervention for infant mental health is key. 

If you would like further information, we would recommend the following resources: 

The Raising Children Network:


Barnado’s Northern Ireland:



Olivia is an Educational and Developmental Psychologist who has worked in a range of settings, including schools, universities, the not-for-profit sector and private practice. Olivia has substantial experience working with children, adolescents and their families, including completion of neurodevelopmental and learning assessments. Olivia has a special interest in eating disorders and is passionate about ensuring young people with this presentation receive appropriate and effective supports. In recent times she has completed training in the SOS Approach to Feeding, Circle of Security Parenting, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Eating Disorders (CBT-E) and Family Based Treatment for Anorexia Nervosa (FBT). Olivia strives to build warm and collaborative relationships with children, adolescents, parents and other professionals involved in a child’s life, including allied health providers and teachers.

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