More than a quarter-century ago, Selma Fraiberg, one of the founding Board members of ZERO TO THREE, and her colleagues in Ann Arbor, Michigan crafted an extraordinary approach to strengthening the development and well-being of infants and young children within secure and stable parent-child relationships. Fraiberg called the practice Infant Mental Health. “Infant” referred to children under three years of age. “Mental” included social, emotional and cognitive domains. “Health” referred to the well-being of young children and families. Fraiberg described new knowledge about early development and relationships as “a treasure that should be returned to babies and their families as a gift from science”(Fraiberg, 1980, p. 3). In the early 1970s, knowledge about the first three years of life was expanding rapidly, in the laboratories of developmental psychologists, in neonatal nurseries and pediatric clinics, and in Fraiberg’s own work with blind infants and with emotionally vulnerable infants and parents.
Under Fraiberg’s careful direction, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and psychiatrists—seasoned practitioners and student interns—worked together at the Child Development Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan to translate new knowledge into practice through the Infant Mental Health approach. Parent and infant were seen together, most frequently in their own homes, for early identification of risk and treatment to reduce the
likelihood of serious developmental failure and relationship disturbance. Each practitioner returned to “the source,” the home where an infant and parent lived, to observe, first-hand, the infant or toddler within the context of the emerging parent-child relationship. Sitting beside the parent and infant at the kitchen table or on the floor or on a sofa, the Infant Mental Health practitioner watched and listened carefully in effort to understand the capacities of the child and family, the risks they faced, and the ways in which the practitioner might be helpful to the infant or toddler and family. Infant Mental Health represented a dramatic shift in focus in clinical practice as it existed at the time. Attention to the baby, the parent, and the early developing parent-child relationship required a comprehensive and intensive approach. Services included concrete assistance, emotional support, developmental guidance, early relationship assessment and support, infant-parent psychotherapy, and advocacy. These dimensions of service (see sidebar, page 4) continue to define Infant Mental Health practice in many settings.