Considering the mental health of babies and young children
Considering the mental health of babies and young children
Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day, and with one in five Australians affected by mental illness, this is a valuable time to reflect on the mental health of all ages, including the very young.
To better understand the mental health needs of small children, we spoke with Meredith Banks, representative of the Association for Infant Mental Health.
Meredith, how can parents care for their baby's mental health?
At the AAIMHI, we recognise each child as a social being, right from the moment of birth they are wired to connect with others. Infants have a capacity to communicate and are little beings in their own right, so it is helpful for parents and carers to recognise this and provide 'good enough care'.
When it comes to babies, 'good enough care' means:
- Responding sensitively to your baby when they are distressed in a consistent and predictable way
- Doing your best to calm and reassure them
- Providing a safe environment
- Providing good enough nourishment including food and affection
- Trying to understand what support your infant needs, rather than falling into their distress
Of course, we understand that it can be difficult to know what is causing a baby to be upset and it can be hard to console them. Most young babies do have an extended period of crying in the day, but it's important to understand what's in the realm of normal and do your best to try and provide safety, security and calm support.
In terms of 'the realm of normal', what are some signs of an infant having good mental health?
Instead of necessarily looking at 'good mental health' or 'poor mental health', I tend to think about indicators – those things that show a baby is socially and emotionally healthy.
So, as a parent, consider whether your baby is:
- Thriving physically
- Making good developmental progress
- Communicating on an age–appropriate level (this may not be verbal, but it means crying or calling for help when they're worried and seeking interaction with others)
- Looking to you or their care-giver for reassurance and point of reference
What impact do parents have on their baby's mental health?
Whatever their age, all children look to their parents for that safe base. Babies are aware of what's going on in their environment and those around them.
This means that babies may sense anxiety, anger, distress or sadness in their carers, so we need to be able to do our best to respond to them when they are distressed and provide a calm and reassuring environment. I think babies get it when we try to understand what's going on for them, and try to help manage their difficult feelings, and it's generally good enough to let them know that, 'I am doing my best to help you right now.'
How can parents look after their own mental health when looking after their child?
If you're having trouble consoling your baby, keep in mind that you're not alone in this experience. And it doesn't mean that you're not being a good enough parent, it just means that at this point in time, you're finding it difficult to reassure your baby.
If you are feeling distressed, doing two or three big sighs may help your body relax, or you could pop your baby in a safe place (like their cot) and step away for a moment to give yourself some space.
You should also think about your safety net, and who you can call when you're really challenged by your baby's distress.
How can parents support their child's mental health needs as they grow?
As your baby goes from being totally reliant on you to a little more independent as a young child, it's important that you continue to provide a secure base for them, a base from which they can safely step out and safely be welcomed back.
This means giving your child the opportunity to gradually explore their world, while being able to check-in with you and know that you're watching over them.
What are some signs that may point towards your baby or child not doing so well mentally?
There are a few questions that you can ask yourself as a parent:
- Is your baby able to be consoled? It is normal for young babies to get distressed after a big day, but they do settle in time and go to sleep. We are concerned, though, when a baby can't be consoled.
- Is your baby checking in with you? We think about care-givers' faces as the 'barometer' of the child's world, so if your baby encounters someone or something new, it's normal for them to look straight at you to get a sense of if it's safe or not, and to get communication from your face. And if they're not looking to you in times of worry or uncertainty, that can be a bit concerning and worth talking about with a health care provider.
- Is your child very calm and quiet? This kind of behaviour isn't necessarily a good thing. For instance, if your child is very distressed about being separated from you at child care, then becomes extremely quiet and undemanding, that can be concerning. We expect babies and young children to call for help when they're worried, hurt or thwarted, and if they're not doing that, we wonder if they might be feeling sad or depressed.
- Is your child socially precocious? Some children are seen as wonderfully outgoing – they go to anybody, run off and don't look back to check in with their parent. However, it is healthy to see your child being a little bit cautious and wary of new people.
- Is your child developing well? Youngsters with positive mental health are generally thriving and meeting their expected physical, social and emotional development trajectories, so if your child isn't developing well, it's important to find out why not.
If there is cause for concern, what action should parents take?
If you are worried about your child's mental health, then it's helpful to build a positive relationship with somebody who can provide ongoing support and a safety net for you as a parent, such as a child and family health nurse or a GP.
Your local child and family health services are an extraordinary resource that provide support for children and parents from birth to school entry. Should concerns arise relating to social-emotional health, there are infant mental health and perinatal mental health workers in the community who can be accessed for support and guidance.
When we are nurturing and responsive to our babies in the first three years of life, they are more likely to develop secure attachments (feel safe with us and in the world) and become confident and independent adults.
These online resources are also very helpful for parents:
- The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health
- Zero to Three, an American resource that contains a wealth of information
- The Social Baby by Lynne Murray and Liz Andrews
This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 27 July 2020
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