Babies and toddlers have mental health needs, too. How do they let us know they are hurting?
We have heard much about the increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in adults, teens and school-age children during times of illness and uncertainty. And thankfully, many professionals have shared practical advice on how to cope and to gradually recover our feelings of safety and hope as we find our bearings in this new-normal world. The library has even written a few posts to help, including:
- Talking with teens about mental health
- Mental Health Moment: Back to school anxiety
- Talking with kids about Covid-19
But how do our youngest family members, our babies and young toddlers, let us know that they have also been affected by stress and by changing family dynamics? They don’t have the words, yet, to express their confusion and insecurity. Just like adults and older children, babies have different levels of resiliency - some will roll with the changes and thrive, while others may be more anxious and clingy. What is infant and early childhood mental health? And how do they let us know they are hurting?
What is Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health
According to the Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health (MI-AIMH), “an infant, toddler and young child’s mental health is every part as important as their physical health. Mental health matters for the growth and maturity of the brain and body and for the social and emotional development of a person — now and for the whole lifetime.” But how do you know if your infant is struggling? Especially when they are not talking yet? The following is a list of behaviors you might notice and want to report to your child’s healthcare provider, from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC):
- A decrease in appetite, changes in bowel movements, and/or changes in sleep patterns
- A marked change in activity level (less curious or engaged; more lethargic and disinterested; unable to sit still; full of unfocused energy)
- A marked change in level of engagement (reduced ability to pay attention, turning or looking away; more listless, roaming attention)
- A reduced tolerance for frustration, which may present as fussiness, whining, or irritability
- More aggression or anger in a toddler with little or no provoking; a response that is out of proportion to any apparent trigger
- An increase in seeking comfort and attention from a parent or trusted caregiver, such as wanting to be held more than usual
- An increase in self-soothing behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or rocking
- Developmental regression, such as a 2-year-old who was successfully using the toilet for several months but has recently had several accidents, or an 18-month-old who was adding new words to their vocabulary daily but is talking less and using gestures instead
What can we do as caregivers?
Here are a few suggestions for ways to support everyone’s mental health when stress levels are rising from NAEYC:
- Focus on joy. One of the best antidotes to anxiety and stress is doing something that brings you delight, makes you smile or laugh, and gets the endorphins flowing.
- Really tune in to your little one. Practice ‘serve and return’ by repeating back their facial expressions and sounds.
- Talk often with babies and toddlers even if they can’t answer back. Talk about feelings and sing comforting songs. Hold little ones close and sway and dance.
- Be honest. There’s no point in pretending everything is normal and we’re all fine. It’s not, and we’re not. Commit with family and friends to practice managing your own mental health and to touch base with each other when you need a wellness check.
- Be gracious. When everyone is feeling stressed and anxious, we find ourselves more irritable, less patient, more forgetful, and less kind and charitable. Remind yourself often that everyone is doing the best they can.
- Ask for help. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Look for the helpers.” Commit to building a mental health safety net for yourself and your extended family. That means knowing who you can call on for informal as well as professional support.
Get more information.
Several online sites offer support and suggestions for combating stress. These include:
- ZERO TO THREE
- Child Mind Institute
- Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Rocking and Rolling. Caring for the Mental Health of Infants and Toddlers article from the NAEYC
This Mental Health Moment article was written for our Family Newsletter brought to you by Learning Support and available in English and Spanish. Please sign up here and you can email us at email@example.com with any questions.