Infant mental health: Including infants in therapeutic work

Andrea Katz

Andrea Katz

UKCP psychotherapist Andrea is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and a Parent Infant Psychotherapist. She works therapeutically with parents and infants as part of CAMHS in Enfield and is Clinical Director of AIMH UK.

What does infant mental health look like?

  • Not necessarily a baby who is content 24/7. Babies will experience a range of needs such as hunger, tiredness and need for connection, throughout the day.
  • It is cultivated in the presence of a safe, caring and responsive adult trying their best to respond to an infant’s needs.
  • It develops through repeated experiences of needs being met, albeit with some frustrations along the way.
  • It’s a developing process for a baby, in which a safe, consistent person is responsive to their needs, delights in and communicates with them and has borne their big feelings.
  • It can be compromised by the persistent unavailability of their carer’s mind.

The role of psychotherapy in infant mental health

When therapeutically supporting infant mental health, the ‘patient’ is the parent-infant relationship. Whilst it is important to have specialist training for psychotherapeutic work with parents and infants, psychotherapists have specific skills to bring to this field of work:  offering containment for parents in extreme distress when the newness of birth juxtaposes with the grief of previous losses; helping parents understand and banish the ‘ghosts in the nursery’ – the ghosts of the parent’s past traumatic experiences that can manifest in the parents behaviour to their own baby; helping parents understand projections (such as fear) they may have onto their baby, that can prevent them from feeling close and connected; holding the anxiety that surfaces for many parents and may make a parent keep a baby too close or, conversely, lose sight of their baby; holding the utter hopelessness (and the hope in the midst of it all) of post-natal depression.

Including infants in psychotherapeutic work

The reason for including babies in parent-infant work is that they are part of the parent-infant relationship. Including babies gives a ‘voice’ to their needs and experiences in relation to their carer, which may get lost in the midst of parental distress. Babies, particularly those whose parents feel no connection to them or feel no joy in the relationship at all, need an advocate – someone who can help their parent understand and respond to their communications. It can be in this glimmer of response in a parent – that initial activation of a parent’s ‘lifeforce’ – that dormant love finds agency and a seed for connection is sown.

Life-long benefits of infant mental health

Infant mental health has well documented benefits over the life course. There is no other life stage more vulnerable, yet more responsive to a change and perhaps no other life stage at which therapeutic input can be more facilitative of long-term well-being and more preventative of future mental health difficulties.

References 

  1. Fraiberg, Selma (1975) Ghosts in the Nursery:  A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships, Journal of American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 14 (3): 387 - 421
  2. Winston, Robert & Chicot, Rebecca (2016) The Importance of Early Bonding on the Long-Term Mental Health & Resilience of Children, London Journal of Primary Care, 8 (1): 12-14

Psychotherapy can offer a safe space to explore your feelings, YOU CAN LOOK FOR AN ACCREDITED THERAPIST ON THE UKCP WEBSITE


You can also find support by contacting:

In an emergency, call: 999

NHS (England), call: 111

NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47

The Samaritans 24 hour helpline, call: 116 123

For information on infant mental health visit The Association for Infant Mental Health website

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  • Infant
  • Children and young people

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