Thinking about Therapy?
Take our quiz to see therapists who are a good match for you.


Infant mental health is often ignored, mostly because it is an unfamiliar or uncomfortable topic (Reschke, 2021). At the same time, many believe that infants and young children’s mental health problems are not real, as children are resilient and will bounce back (HCA Virginia, 2021). Worse yet, there is a myth that infants’ and toddlers’ brains are “a blank slate”, and that they will successfully overcome any adverse situation they will encounter (such as maltreatment, neglect, abuse, abandonment, and trauma, just to name a few).

Because infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) is paramount for the healthy emotional, physical, and psychological development of all individuals, this paper aims to bring greater attention to the topic, as well as to increase awareness of the potentially destructive consequences of disregarding the importance of IECMH for our individual wellbeing, as well as our society’s future health, creativity, and productivity.

Brain Development and The Nature-Nurture Dilemma

Early prenatal brain development begins at about two weeks of gestation when the embryo begins to form a “C-shaped” neural tube, a structure that will eventually become the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). From about the 40th day, or 5th week of gestation, the neurons in the fetal brain begin to increase at an astonishing rate; one-quarter of a million per minute for 9 months, and by birth, the baby’s brain will contain roughly 100 billion neurons (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

After birth, the neurons in the baby’s brain continue to form new connections and reproduce at a rapid pace, slowing down at around 12 months of age; however, this process of growth is shown to take place throughout the lifespan, through processes that involve the generation of new synapses (new connections among neurons) and pruning (elimination of extra, unused synapses; Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

As seen above, neurodevelopment (a term referring to the brain’s development of neurological pathways that influence performance or functioning, such as emotional regulation, intellectual functioning, reading ability, social skills, memory, attention, or focus skills) begins early in the prenatal period, “explodes” during the first 12 months of an infant’s life, and continues, though at a much slower rate, throughout the lifespan (Brighton Center for Pediatric Neurodevelopment, 2021; Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Brain development takes place sequentially, that is, it organizes itself in a hierarchical manner, from least (brainstem) to most complex (cortical areas). These different parts develop, organize, and become fully functional at different times during childhood (Perry, 2007).

At birth, for example, the lower brain areas (or brainstem) are responsible for regulating cardiovascular and respiratory functions. (If these are damaged, the infant will not survive). In comparison, the cortical areas that are responsible for abstract thinking and executive function are not fully developed and functional until later in life, usually around the age of 25 (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015; Perry, 2207).

Additionally, there is also a debate over which is more important, Nature or Nurture; in this respect, studies show that both genes and environment influence human development, but how exactly and in what ways they interact and influence each other, remains unclear. (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

What is certain, however, is that genes and environment are in constant communication, always working together, with recent literature showing that neurodevelopment takes place within the context of relationships, as “children’s brains grow and are molded by the people around them” (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015; Perry & Szalavitz, 2017, p. xxviii).

In other words, everyone’s personal history- the people, places, and events in their life, influences their brain development, thus the way each person sees and understands the world is unique (Perry & Winfrey, 2021).

Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health and Stress

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines mental health as our emotional, psychological, and social well-being; our mental health, in turn, affects how we think, act, and feel about ourselves, others, and the world (CDC, 2021). Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH), at its basis, refers to “the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years old to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture” (Reschke, 2021, p. 36).

To reach optimal mental health, each infant needs a nurturing, warm, and responsive environment, where they can learn through patterned, repetitive experiences that they are safe, secure, and loved. When these experiences occur, the infant’s brain makes certain associations, as well as a model of him/herself and the world around: he/she begins to see him/herself as loved and worthy, and the world as trustworthy and safe (Broderick & Blewitt, 2017; Perry, 2017).

On the contrary, when the infant’s needs are not met, or the care is sporadic, inconsistent, or absent, the infant’s brain makes associations that reflect these experiences and his/her model of him/ herself and the world is that he/she is not important and the world cannot be trusted (Broderick & Blewitt, 2017; Perry, 2017).

These associations made in the brain early in life will have a far greater impact on the individual’s well-being than any other later ones because as they grow and develop, infants’ and toddlers’ brains also create a “personal catalog” of experiences or templates, which is then used for the rest of their life to make sense of the world around them (Perry & Winfrey, 2021, p. 38).

Additionally, depending on the type of care received, the stress-response systems in the infants’ brains will develop accordingly: they will be in balance (or regulated) when the care is timely and adequate, and they will be dysregulated (or sensitized) when the care is chaotic or unpredictable (Perry, 2007). Stated otherwise, because infants and very young children are dependent on their caregivers for survival, having but limited ways of signaling their distress (i.e., crying), it is the adult caregivers that provide the infant with external regulation (Perry & Winfrey, 2021).

Thus, when the caregiver is consistent, predictable, and nurturing, the stress-response systems in the brain become resilient, but if the stress-response systems are activated in unpredictable or chaotic ways, they become sensitized and dysfunctional (Perry, 2007; Perry & Winfrey, 2021). This is exactly what happens to the infants’ and toddlers’ brains when they are exposed to extreme stress, maltreatment, neglect, abuse, abandonment, or trauma.

Extreme Stress and Trauma

Stress is a fact of life. Evolutionarily speaking, some degree of stress can be adaptive, as it strengthens our capacity to adapt to challenges to thrive. That is why, when stress is predictable, controllable, and moderate in severity, it may lead to resilience, but when it is unpredictable, rapid, threatening, and severe, it may lead to vulnerability (Perry, 2007; Perry & Pollard, 1998).

When stress is manageable, the stress-response systems in the brain can regulate themselves and achieve balance, also called homeostasis. But when stress is severe, extreme, unpredictable, or prolonged, the brain’s capacity to compensate or balance the stress can become overactivated or fatigued, thus incapable of restoring the previous state of equilibrium or homeostasis (Perry, 2007; Perry & Pollard, 1998, Perry & Winfrey, 2021).

Two major forms of maltreatment that are most often encountered and have the most deleterious impact on the infant’s/toddler’s brain development, are neglect and trauma. Neglect is defined as the absence of an experience or patterns of experiences required for the development of one’s genetic potential, while trauma is an event that is frightening, dangerous, or violent, and poses a threat to an infant’s/child’s life or bodily integrity (Perry, 2008; The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, n.d.).

Because the brain goes through various sensitive developmental periods in the first five years of life, exposure to high levels of stress leads to key systems in the brain becoming more reactive and supersensitive, and the stress-response system can be activated whenever anything new takes place (Perry & Winfrey, 2021; Teicher et al., 2003). That is why, for most people, the unknown is one of the major causes of feeling anxious and overwhelmed (Perry & Winfrey, 2021).

Moreover, infants and children who are exposed to unpredictable or extreme stress (e.g., maltreatment, trauma) will become dysregulated, and the normal progression of brain development will be altered, often leading to psychiatric illness and behavioral dysfunction later in life (Teicher et al., 2003).

Fortunately, the field of IECMH has made great strides over the past decades and today there is abundant research that can help us understand how early experiences (both positive, but especially negative ones, such as those mentioned above) can put babies’ and toddlers’ social and emotional wellbeing in danger.

Moreover, such studies are a wonderful avenue we can use to educate us (and society at large) on the early signals in very young children’s behavior that can inform us they are suffering or in need of help.

Lastly, these resources can provide us with support and interventions that protect babies’ and toddlers’ mental health during stressful times so that we can look for ways to restore their emotional and social well-being and help them flourish (Reschke, 2021).


Despite the great strides in neuroscience and other related domains, the field of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) is still lagging in putting this information into daily practice.

Countless infants and young children are suffering because they are not getting the adequate care necessary to fulfill their true potential and thrive. From a neurodevelopmental perspective, it is the human brain that mediates all emotional, social, cognitive, and behavioral functioning, and this lack of care may have tremendous negative outcomes for our society’s future, productivity, well-being, and creativity (Perry, 2007).

In other words, if the infant’s brain receives the proper stimulation at the right time (i.e., all its senses are stimulated at each sensitive developmental stage- touch, smell, hearing, taste, and sight), and key systems in its brain will organize and function properly; however, if the brain is not provided with the necessary patterned, repetitive stimulation, the stress-response systems will be negatively impacted, resulting in dysfunction and psychopathology (Perry, 2007; Perry & Winfrey, 2021). In this respect, infants and young children exposed to maltreatment, abuse, and trauma during a sensitive developmental period will have the greatest difficulties in relating to others, themselves, and the world around, them as their stress-response systems become altered, impacting their capacity to regulate and function adequately (Perry, 2007).

Fortunately, there is abundant research in the field of IECMH that can be used to help caregivers and families better cater to the needs of their infants and very young children. However, it is the responsibility of various health care professionals (e.g., health care personnel, school administrators, mental health providers, welfare, and children’s agencies) and community leaders in different capacities to make this information available to the greater public, as well as increase their efforts to shine a spotlight on early development.

Nurturing care is essential for the emotional well-being of infants and very young children, but to achieve this goal, we need to join efforts to work on behalf of children and families everywhere (ZERO TO THREE, 2018).

You May Also Like