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Oct. 27, 2020

Hearing the term “infant mental health” sounds unfamiliar to most parents. However, it’s a very real thing. Sometimes, infants and young children can experience stress if their relationship with their primary caregivers is strained or deficient. The lack of a healthy bond between the infant and caregiver could cause the young child to experience toxic stress while their brains are in a critical stage of development.

Infant and early childhood mental health focuses on the social and emotional well-being of children from birth to age 5. Addressing infant mental health is important in preventing and treating mental health concerns of young children. 

The BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation recently spoke with Kerrie Schnake about the importance of supporting young children developing healthy behaviors.  

Schnake, director of the South Carolina Program for Infant/Toddler Care* at the University of South Carolina and president of the South Carolina Association for Infant Mental Health* (SCIMHA), works to educate children- and family-serving organizations on how to support healthy emotional development. 

What is infant mental health? 

Infant and early child mental health focuses on the development of healthy social and emotional behaviors in young child from birth to age 5. It’s about their ability to express and regulate emotions to form relationships with adult caregivers in their lives, and to explore and learn from the environment through safe and caring relationships.

Why is infant mental health important?

This period of human development — birth to 5 years old — is truly laying the foundation for who that person will be for the rest of their lives. This is an optimal period of brain development that’s influenced by the relationships they have and it’s shaping the child’s future.

What happens if we don’t address mental health issues in children?

It’s not a guarantee, but in a lot of instances these children, when they don’t get the emotional feedback from a trusted adult, don’t learn to manage and regulate their emotions. 

This can teach children not to trust others and it has a ripple effect into adulthood. These are the kids who are more likely to get expelled from grade school, drop out of high school and end up in jail, developing substance use and other mental health disorders.

So, there’s a risk there when we don’t address the issues early. The problem gets more complicated and more severe. When we can intervene at infancy or in early childhood, we are addressing the problem before it becomes a bigger issue down the road.

How is South Carolina working to address infant mental health? 

SCIMHA has done a lot of work to bring different professional development experiences to the organizations that serve infants, children and families — partners in mental health, partners in child welfare. 

SCIMHA has had some major growth. There is growing awareness of the importance of these early years among South Carolina’s child-serving agencies and it’s exciting to see serious attention given to this age group. South Carolina’s state agencies have begun thinking about how they can better promote health and well-being in these young children.

How is the Foundation helping SCIMHA with infant mental health?

It’s a great partnership, she said. A grant from the Foundation has incentivized child-serving professionals to earn an endorsement in infant mental health competencies. It’s essentially a set of guidelines that provides base information to inform the way you are interacting with young children and families. 

Additionally, SCIMHA received support from the Foundation to launch a South Carolina Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation network. These consultants will help child care providers and families address behavior challenges among young children and improve how adults interact with children and impact their social/emotional health. This aims to reduce the number of children who are expelled from preschool. Children are estimated to be expelled from preschool at three times the rate of those in K-12.

Learn more about SCIMHA and its work promoting healthy relationships for infants and young children in South Carolina. 

*The South Carolina Program for Infant/Toddler Care and the South Carolina Association for Infant Mental Health are independent organizations that provide health information you may find useful.

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