- Babies and toddlers can have optimal mental health or experience challenges, just like grown-ups.
- Symptoms of mental health difficulties in very young children may look different than in adults.
- Learning to identify these signs may improve the well-being of babies and toddlers.
Co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW.
The importance of mental health is widely recognized for teenagers, adults, and even older children, but what about the mental well-being of babies and toddlers? You might think, “What could possibly cause a baby to have mental health struggles, they just got here?” However, because human infants are born incredibly dependent and rely entirely on their caregivers, their well-being is inextricably tied to those who take care of them (Harvard Center on the Developing Child, n.d.).
Caregiver mental health significantly impacts the mental health of infants and toddlers, making it vital to use a two-generation approach (Harvard Center on the Developing Child, n.d.). When caregivers experience anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, they may have difficulty offering the consistent, responsive care that infants and toddlers need to feel secure and learn to regulate their emotions. Baby’s early relationships—and the foundation provided by those first secure attachments—are vital to their emotional well-being, growth, and development (Stygar & Zadroga, 2021).
What do mental health struggles look like in the very young?
Babies cannot express their emotions or thoughts through spoken words, so they communicate through their behaviors. Indicators of infant mental health concerns can include sleep problems, difficulties with feeding, persistent crying and irritability, and lack of weight gain or failure to thrive (Stygar & Zadroga, 2021). Other signs may be a child who does not meet developmental milestones at the expected times (Stygar & Zadroga, 2021) or regresses in areas of previous proficiency. Some behaviors that could signify mental health concerns tend to be present in many children, so look for these signs as a collection rather than individually, with special attention to frequency, duration, and intensity. Practitioners can help ensure that caregivers are aware of these signs, know when the signs point to a concern, and equip caregivers with skills to promote their child’s mental health.
What caregivers need to know
First, caregivers must be attentive to their own mental health and well-being. As noted, babies rely on their caregivers, not only for their daily care of physical needs—diapering, feeding, washing—but for their social and connection needs as well; holding, eye gazing, “talking” back and forth—those serve-and-return interactions that build the bonds of secure attachment. Providers and practitioners can support families by providing education and guidance on the value of early attachment, responsive caregiving, and positive parenting practices. Caregivers may also need to understand “the myth of spoiling” and be reassured that no, they cannot spoil their baby with too much love or attention. In fact, attentive, caregiving adults provide a buffer against everyday stresses, challenges, and adversity.
When communities thrive, families thrive
Community-based initiatives including family-friendly policy changes (e.g., affordable child care, paid family leave, universal pre-K) can create a more supportive ecosystem for all families. Collaborative efforts between health care providers, early childhood educators, and social workers—such as integrated primary care programs like HealthySteps or DULCE that provide screening, a two-generation approach, and caregiver education—bring comprehensive, accessible services and resources to families of young children in a non-stigmatized setting. Addressing systemic barriers that hinder optimal infant mental health can have a far-reaching impact on the well-being of babies, toddlers, their families, and future generations.
When families thrive, communities thrive
Understanding the importance of mental health for our youngest citizens and ensuring that caregivers and families have the education and resources they need benefits everyone. When babies and toddlers receive the necessary support for their mental well-being, they are more likely to develop healthy emotional regulation, secure attachments, and positive social skills. These abilities prepare them to better navigate life’s challenges, form healthy relationships, and achieve their full potential.
Harvard Center on the Developing Child. (n.d.). Early Childhood Mental Health. Deep Dives. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/deep-dives/mental-health/
Stygar, K., and Zadroga, J. (2021, April 20). Infants Have Mental Health Needs, Too. Mayo Clinic Health Center: Speaking of Health. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/infants-have-mental-health-needs-too