Gaps in NHS services are leaving infants from 0–2 years of age without vital mental health support, according to a new report.
Released by the Parent-Infant Foundation to mark Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, the report highlights the need for improved service provision for babies and toddlers, as well as better awareness and training around their mental health.
The report is based on findings from a survey of 283 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) practitioners from across the country, including psychotherapists, psychiatrists and counselling psychologists.
Of all respondents, only 52% said that their local CAMHS services take referrals for babies and toddlers below the age of 2, even though they would fall within the age referral criteria of between 0 and 18 years, while just 36% thought that services in their area could work effectively with infants.
In addition, just 9% of respondents believed there was adequate support for infants whose mental health was 'at risk'.
The Foundation is labelling the gap in services a 'baby blindspot' which has developed due to a tendency of CAMHS services to focus on older children.
"It is clear from these new statistics, and our previous research, that there is a “baby blindspot” and that infant mental health is frequently forgotten in children and young people’s mental health provision," said Sally Hogg, head of policy and campaigning at the Parent-Infant Foundation.
The lack of support from many CAMHS services means that infants across the country may be missing out on vital mental health support during a time when stress and distress can have substantial effects on their wellbeing, says the Foundation.
CAMHS services for infants differ substantially from support given to older children, with a focus on observing pre-verbal behaviours and building relationships between parents and their babies.
Infant mental health practitioners also have the responsibility of identifying and modifying any problematic interaction between parent and child – an important safeguard against the transmission of trauma between generations.
According to the Foundation, intervening at such an early stage in a child's development can reduce the need for mental health support later in life.
In addition to gaps in service provision, the survey also highlighted a lack of infant mental health training among practitioners.
During their pre-training qualification, 1 in 4 (26%) respondents had not been trained to work with 0–2 year olds, while 1 in 2 (48%) had no experience of working with such an age group.
Training also greatly varied by profession: 63% of psychotherapists, 15% of psychiatrists and 12% of counselling psychologists received 'a lot' of training on infant needs.
Understanding of infant mental health was generally poor too – almost 1 in 3 (31%) practitioners rated their understanding at just 1 out of 5.
To combat the issue, the Foundation is calling for better investment in infant mental health services by national governments, as well as better workforce training and a stronger sense of accountability for NHS commissioners to offer mental health support to children of all ages.
It is also calling for the adoption of the term 'infant, children and young people's mental health' in an attempt to include infants in the conversation about youth mental health.
"Wide ranging research indicates that mental wellbeing during the earliest years of life lays the foundations for later health and wellbeing," added Hogg. "Changing our language to talk about “infant, children and young people’s mental health” is a simple but powerful way to drive change.
"We hope that Infant Mental Health Awareness Week can focus attention on what is needed to help all babies, especially those in the most need, to have the very best start to their lives."
To read the full survey results, click here.
Infant Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 7–13th June. For more information on this Week's theme, events and ways to get involved, visit the Parent-Infant Foundation website here.
Written by Marco Ricci Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health