What happens inside a child’s brain in the first three years of life is critical to their long-term mental health, says Jyrah Knight, MS, early intervention specialist and professional development director at the nonprofit, First3Years. So, if a child can’t even remember their encounters with parents and caregivers, how can it affect them so profoundly?
“Understanding Infant Mental Health
” is the topic of the latest episode of The Menninger Clinic’s Mind Dive podcast. Join our cohosts and Knight as they explore the fascinating topic of the developing brain in the first three years of life
Knight explains that trust relationships are critical to a child’s early brain development and mental health. “You can’t talk about infant mental health without talking about relational health as they essentially go hand in hand,” she says. She says infant mental health isn’t about illness … it’s about helping a child develop well right from the start. “Safe, stable and nurturing relationships are essentially the foundation for all other infant brain development that happens.”
“Babies may not have memory, but their brain is keeping score, and it’s keeping score every time a need is met,” she says. For example, when mom and dad come when a baby cries, the brain is keeping score, and those interactions help build trust. Babies are aware of when they are cuddled, hugged, talked to and swaddled, says Knight. She adds that the infant brain is keeping track of those positive interactions, even when memory is not present.
So how do you help a parent or caregiver as well as a child? Knight says the best approach is a strengths-based perspective and positive reinforcement. Parents and caregivers can easily get overwhelmed with the notion that they are responsible for their baby’s mental health. That’s why the goal is to highlight things that are going well between the parent and the child dyad. Knight suggests “lighting them up with the positive of what’s happening.” She adds that they will then feel empowered to do more.
Knight and cohosts Kerry Horrell, PhD, and Robert Boland, MD, all acknowledge the importance of attachment to overall mental health and how the first three years is a critical time to develop these relationships. Dr. Horrell addresses how attachment trauma can show up later in life as depression or even suicidality. Knight explains trust-based relational intervention as a research-based methodology developed to address attachment relationships.