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Infant Mental Health Specialists and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation

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Infant Mental Health Specialists
Over the course of the last decade, the attention to brain research, infancy, early development, and school readiness has increased the interest in infant mental health across disciplines and settings such as early care and education, nursing, primary care, home visiting, and early intervention. A growing number of practitioners have chosen to pursue additional training and become Infant Mental Health Specialists. In general, Infant Mental Health Specialists complete specialized, post-masters degree advanced training and represent clinical or interventional disciplines such as psychology, social work, nursing, child development, and family support.

Trained Infant Mental Health Specialists have unique knowledge and skills to observe and address the emotional health of the infant and parent or caregiver; identify mental health concerns, delays or disabilities; explore relationship conflicts that impact the infant’s development; and utilize clinical skills and strategies to assess and intervene in troubled infant/parent relationships. They take a developmental perspective and offer anticipatory guidance to parents, support the infant-parent relationship, and enhance the capacity of the parent or caregiver to support their infant’s social, emotional and cognitive development.

Infant mental health practice can be described as a therapeutic process that is guided by a set of foundational principles. At the core, infant mental health practices aim to support the critical variables that influence infant and toddler mental health? healthy pregnancy and perinatal care, family relationships and parent-child interaction, caregiving practices, cultural perspectives, the early care environment, and the developmental trajectory (physical, cognitive, and emotional development) of the child. The foundational principles that guide Infant Mental Health Specialist training programs include:

  1. Understanding infant and early childhood development;
  2. Recognizing the context of family, culture, and community;
  3. Building relationships and supporting parent/caregivers;
  4. Taking a developmental perspective and approach;
  5. Observing and engaging caregivers in the child’s development;
  6. Focusing on the interaction between infants and caregivers;
  7. Engaging in reflective practices for self-awareness and in supervision; and
  8. Providing screening, assessment, and clinical therapeutic intervention.

( Weatherston, D. 2000)

Infant Mental Health Practice and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation
The Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (www.ecmhc.org) believes that essential skills for Infant Mental Health Specialists and infant mental health practice include the capacity to provide early childhood mental health consultation.  Adding consultation skills and strategies can enhance the specialist’s impact on supporting individual infant and family mental health through child or family-centered consultation with parents and caregivers, as well as impact on the quality of care and the capacity of systems and services on behalf of infants and toddlers through programmatic consultation. Some of the Infant Mental Health Specialist training programs incorporate this important aspect of working with young children, families, and early childhood serving settings.

Many of the principles of infant mental health practice listed above (1-7) also apply to the consultative role. In a consultative role and by applying the skills related to the consultative stance (Johnston & Brinamen, 2005 and 2006), Infant Mental Health Specialists bring their knowledge and expertise to work collaboratively with parents and caregivers and build the capacity of parents and caregivers to support the infant’s social and emotional development. Principle 8, the provision of clinical therapeutic interventions to an infant, parent, or family in accordance with clinical or professional practice standards (such as infant-parent psychotherapy), would be considered beyond the scope of the consultative role. However, mental health consultants should be able to recognize and respond sensitively to any potential concerns regarding a child’s social and emotional development. When problems arise, early childhood mental health consultants can facilitate planning and support for young children at risk of or experiencing social and emotional concerns in partnership with the child's family and caregivers. When a young child demonstrates concerning behavior that does not dissipate and is frequent in nature than the early childhood mental health consultant may refer the child and his family to those who are available in the community to provide these direct service interventions (Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation).

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