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ZERO TO THREE’s Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) Guiding Principles

Healthy, nurturing relationships with parents and caregivers are key to a baby’s social and emotional development, often referred to as infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH), which lays the foundation for all future development.
A baby touches an adult's hand.

The caregiver-young child relationship is shaped by history, culture, community and environment. Anyone who touches the lives of pregnant persons, and families of infants and young children can play a role in promoting and supporting infant and early childhood mental health.

The Why

All babies come into this world with a rich emotional life, ready to form and contribute to relationships, especially with parents and key caregivers. Brain development in the prenatal and first three years of life advances at rates that exceed any other period of life. This window of infancy and early childhood provides optimal opportunities to build healthy brain development, support the earliest relationships, and promote infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH).

For some young children and families, risks to wellbeing exist and, in some circumstances, mental health and developmental disorders can occur even in the early months and years of a child’s life. The mental health and wellbeing of parents/caregivers is crucial to the wellbeing of infants and young children. The earlier we can recognize, support and address problems, the better able we are to optimize each child’s unique potential.

What is IECMH?

Infant and early childhood mental health is at the center of all parenting, educational, health and policy matters that ZERO TO THREE’s advocates for and supports. Across the globe, the ZERO TO THREE definition of IECMH has been embraced.

IECMH is defined as developing the capacity of the infant and young child to form close and secure relationships; to experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture.

IECMH In Action

Anyone who touches the lives of babies, young children and their families can contribute to promoting infant and early childhood mental health.

On broader field and systems levels, we understand the scope of IECMH to include the perinatal period through early childhood (prenatal through 5 years old). IECMH is a multidisciplinary field, inclusive of persons from many professional, cultural and community backgrounds, and systems, focusing on enhancing the emotional and social competence of infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children and their caregivers, through healthy relationships and early experiences.

IECMH efforts are aimed at promoting mental health, preventing mental health problems, and providing effective culturally responsive, family centered, and equitable supports and where needed, interventions.

IECMH Guiding Principles

ZERO TO THREE developed a set of IECMH Guiding Principles to enhance understanding and application of infant and early childhood mental health.

The 12 IECMH Guiding Principles are outlined below, but further details for each principle can be found in the ZERO TO THREE IECMH Guiding Principles paper which can be downloaded here.

  1. The field of IECMH must reflect and advance socially just and equitable practices and policies that consider all expectant families, infants/young children, and their families—and that honor the diversity of all who are served.
  2. Culture is foundational to caregiving beliefs, assumptions, values, and behaviors.
  3. Policy change and public investment in IECMH is critical to ensuring that the basic rights of infants, young children, and their families are upheld.
  4. Pregnancy, childbirth, and the arrival of the newborn represent a time of unparalleled change, vulnerability, and opportunity that impact the health and mental health of all members of the family.
  5. Infants, toddlers, and young children develop in the context of relationships that contribute to their emotional, social, and developmental well-being.
  6. Parents/caregivers want the best for their children.
  7. A key foundation for IECMH is the mental health of adults who care for them.
  8. Each infant is unique. The broad range of individual differences among children contributes to variability in the timing of developmental milestones.
  9. Early experiences matter—optimal brain growth occurs during early childhood (prenatal to 5 years old).
  10. Infants and young children have a right to high-quality, culturally responsive, and accessible treatment when experiencing significant stress, trauma, and demonstrated mental health and/or developmental disorders.
  11. Reflective practice is an essential tool to support those who serve families with infants and young children, both in clinical and policy/systems positions.
  12. Multiple and diverse relationships are at the heart of quality services for families.

Infant and early childhood mental health is a diverse, inclusive, multidisciplinary field ranging across many professional and community backgrounds and systems, focusing on enhancing the emotional and social competence of infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children and their caregivers and families, through healthy relationships.

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