Dedicated mental health service for infants

More than 250 health professionals working with young children attended Ireland’s first national conference on infant mental health in Cork at the end of 2007. Infant mental health is a concept still new to Ireland and has been pioneered by two clinical psychologists in HSE South, Catherine Maguire and Rochelle Matacz, where they have established Ireland’s first dedicated mental health service for children under the age of three.

According to Ms. Matacz, “By focusing on the zero to three age group, we want to develop effective methods of prevention, early intervention, assessment and treatment of developmental, social and emotional concerns involving infants and their families.”

“The model of intervention we have developed in North Cork is multidisciplinary and comprises a number of health professionals from child and adolescent mental health, adult mental health, area medical officers, social workers, childcare leaders, physiotherapists, paediatric occupational therapist, public health nurses, speech and language therapists and clinical psychologists. Until recently, a baby or toddler was viewed as the passive recipient in the parent-child relationship. With this in mind it was believed that just meeting the physical needs of a baby, like changing its nappy or feeding it, was enough. We now know differently and it is becoming widely accepted that the baby or toddler is in fact an active participant in the caregiver-child relationship, showing initiatives from very early on” said Ms. Maguire. “The conference raised the awareness of mental health among those working with young children,” she added.

Antoine Guedeney, a Paris-based Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry gave a presentation on whether or not babies get depressed. According to him “it is unlikely that depression exists before a baby is 18-24 months old. However, infants could suffer withdrawal.  When the baby has no caretaker other than the main caretaker and where that relationship is highly unpredictable, it can cause withdrawal behaviour in babies.  He also said that “children whose mothers were depressed could also withdraw. If a child remains withdrawn, they are at a high risk of developing a depressive disorder later on.”  

A number of other topics which were presented by international experts included:

  • Connecting Early Childhood Outcomes to Policy and Practice by Hiram E. Fitzgerald PhD, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Michigan State University and Director World Association for Infant Mental Health.  
  • Crying for Help: An Interdisciplinary Infant Mental Health Approach to Working with Fussy Babies and Worried Parents by Linda Gilkerson, PhD, Professor, Erikson Institute, Chicago.
  • Beginning With the Baby by Deborah J. Weatherston, PhD, Executive Director Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health 
  • Parents are their baby’s first relationship: but what does that mean? By Donna R. Weston, PhD, University of Washington.

The conference was funded by the Health Services National Partnership Forum with support from the HSE South. Further details available from catherine.maguire@hse.ie or rochelle.matacz@hse.ie

Last updated on: 18 / 03 / 2008