Being the mother of a young child can be stressful, but having a young child with emotional and behavioral needs has its own unique set of challenges.
Soon after Danielle and her husband moved from New York City to New Jersey, they enrolled their toddler, Theo, into a child care program. Although Theo’s physical development was on par with his peers and he was able to verbalize and express his needs, he struggled to self-regulate his emotions and behaviors. Danielle informed the center staff that her son had some behavioral challenges, including biting, but the staff reassured her that they could handle it. However, after just a few weeks, Theo was expelled from the child care center for his behavioral issues. The child care centers were not prepared, nor did they have the resources to address Theo’s emotional and behavioral needs.
Danielle called PerformCare, New Jersey’s Children’s System of Care, which provides resources for mental and behavioral healthcare. However, she was told that they did not have any services for children that young. Determined, she then called every child mental health provider covered under her insurance policy to find services. Of the 89 providers contacted, none were able to help her. “I couldn’t find any infant mental health services in my community to serve my 18-month old. There’s nothing for infant mental health.”
Danielle was finally able to find a therapeutic nursery but the center was for children on Medicaid so she had to obtain a waiver. At last, Danielle found a supportive and nurturing environment for her son to address his social-emotional needs. Theo was making progress, but not long after enrolling, Danielle hit yet another roadblock: the center was shutting down because of discontinued state funding.
Danielle tried to receive early intervention services for Theo. “The wait lists are months and months long to even get evaluations.” Repeatedly, she reached out to early intervention, only to be told that since he only had behavioral issues and met his developmental milestones, they could not help. After reaching out for the third time, they agreed to help and referred the family to a developmental pediatrician. Finally, when Theo was two-and-a-half, he started receiving services. However, early intervention services only last until a child turns age 3.
Eventually, when Theo was three-and-a-half years old, he was diagnosed with multiple special needs, including autism, ADHD and anxiety. While Danielle was grateful to finally receive a diagnosis, she felt frustrated that the process took so long. She knew from an early age that Theo was in need of services and yet was continuously dismissed by a system that is not set up to help babies. Waiting so long to care for his social-emotional development, at an age when his brain is developing the most, meant fewer opportunities to intervene early on, leaving many gaps in service for Theo.
“There needs to be more providers, period, because the wait lists are absurd,” says Danielle. “They know the wait lists are absurd. There’s just not enough providers. No one’s getting trained fast enough. There could be services if there were enough people to evaluate and give the services and if they were more affordable if people took insurance.”
The first three years of life are crucial for a baby’s social-emotional development. However, infant mental health professionals are in short supply, preventing families like Danielle’s from accessing the support and resources they need. All families deserve access to infant mental health services to promote healthy social-emotional development and set babies on a path for lifelong success.