Infant mental health conference examines healthy development starting in utero

    Experts in a field called “Infant Mental Health” are gathering in Harrisburg this week for a conference. They will discuss what helps and hinders healthy brain development in the youngest children.

    Participants at the conference will exchange information regarding recognizing and addressing developmental delays. It brings together experts from different disciplines such as speech or occupational therapy and early childhood education. But healthy development begins before birth says Dr. Stacey Carpenter, vice president of the Pennsylvania Association for Infant Mental Health. “If you think about a mother being in stress, or being upset, or being angry the fetus will feel all those feelings, which can affect the brain development of the fetus,” said Carpenter.

    So, reaching out to stressed-out pregnant women who have little support is crucial says Carpenter. The conference also will examine the impact of trauma such as violence, abuse or neglect on very small children.

    Carpenter says in situations involving domestic violence, for example, experts used to be more concerned about older children who might have vivid memories of an incident. But new research shows that witnessing such trauma can impair the brain development of very young children. Carpenter says in children who grow up experiencing abuse, neglect, or violence, the primal areas of the brain which control basic functions related to survival can over-develop, while other brain areas related to learning and attention can be underdeveloped.

    Carpenter says research in infant mental health is growing rapidly, and one main goal is to share and distribute information to all people who interact and work with very young children.

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