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Parenting -- Mental health for babies and toddlers (1)

Key points

  • Good mental health is important for baby and toddler development and wellbeing.

  • You can lay the foundations for good mental health from birth.

  • Strong relationships, play and safe environments are key to good mental health in babies and toddlers.

  • Looking after yourself is an important part of supporting mental health in young children.

  • If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, development or wellbeing, seek professional help.

Mental health for babies and toddlers: what it is and why it matters

Mental health is the way babies and children think and feel about themselves and the world around them.

Good mental health is when babies and children feel good about themselves and feel loved, safe and secure in their environment.

Good mental health is an important part of healthy child development. It helps babies and toddlers develop well, learn to understand their emotions, build healthy relationships, adapt to change and cope with life’s challenges and stresses.

Children’s brains grow and develop faster in the first 5 years of life than at any other time. This is when the foundations for lifelong learning, behaviour and health, including mental health, are laid down. If you support your child’s mental health from birth, you lay the foundations for good mental health throughout your child’s life.




What good mental health in babies and toddlers looks like

The signs of good mental health change as children grow and develop. They can also vary among children. But there are some general signs of good mental health that you can look for.

In the first year, a baby with good mental health will probably:

  • make eye contact

  • show interest in people and surroundings

  • enjoy attention from their parents or carers and respond with smiles or cuddles

  • start to communicate with their face, voice and gestures like waving and pointing

  • start copying your gestures

  • cry when they need something and calm down when their needs are met

  • get upset or uncomfortable around people they don’t know and want reassurance from you, especially towards the end of their first year.

At 1-2 years, a child with good mental health will probably:

  • be strongly attached to you – for example, they might get upset when they’re separated from you, but they can be soothed and cope with brief separations

  • start to develop self-regulation – that is, the ability to understand and manage their own behaviour and reactions

  • have tantrums but also start learning how to manage big feelings

  • start to show that they understand other people’s feelings – for example, they might hug you or say ‘kiss it better’ if you stub your toe

  • start wanting to do things themselves.

At 2-3 years, a child with good mental health will probably:

  • continue to interact with other people and build healthy relationships

  • enjoy being around people other than their parents or carers

  • copy what other people say and do – that is, they’re learning how to behave appropriately

  • start learning about taking turns and sharing

  • start using words to express their emotions.

* The signs of good mental health can look different if you have a premature baby, your child is unwell or your child has a disability. It’s a good idea to talk to your paediatrician, GP or child and family health nurse about the mental health signs to expect in your child.


Reference:

Barnes, J., & Theule, J. (2019). Maternal depression and infant attachment security: A meta-analysis. Infant Mental Health Journal, 40(6), 817-834. https://doi.org/10.1002/imhj.21812.

Beeghly, M., & Tronick, E. (2011). Early resilience in the context of parent-infant relationships: A social developmental perspective. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 41(7), 197-201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cppeds.2011.02.005. Ciarrusta, J., Dimitrova, R., & McAlonan, G. (2020). Chapter 3 - Early maturation of the social brain: How brain development provides a platform for the acquisition of social-cognitive competence. Progress in Brain Research, 254, 49-70. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2020.05.004. Fowler, C., Green, J., Elliott, D., Petty, J., & Whiting, L. (2019). The forgotten mothers of extremely preterm babies: A qualitative study. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 28(11-12), 2124-2134. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.14820.

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