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Infant Mental Health

During the first year of a baby’s development, over 1 million neural connections form each second within their brain. Babies master developmental milestones like rolling over, holding a bottle, and pinching food with their fingers. While developing physically, their minds work overtime. New experiences create a foundation to support learning as they grow. Infants who have parents and caregivers that provide a supportive, caring, and consistent environment are more likely to be emotionally healthy as they grow up. 

Infant emotional challenges

Having a new baby in the home can prove both exciting and stressful. Parents wonder if they’re doing everything right or if better avenues to support their infant exist. Babies without a strong attachment to their caregiver can show signs of emotional distress as early as two to three months of age. This can take form of the following:

  • Attachment disorder happens when a baby senses they cannot trust their primary caretakers. This can lead to the fear of forming bonds with people. Attachment disorder can occur from a variety of circumstances. Babies crying for long periods of time without comfort or those who experience mistreatment can have difficulty attaching to a caregiver. Separation from parents due to a hospitalization or other circumstances surrounding substance abuse, depression, or illness can cause infants and toddlers to distance themselves emotionally.
  • Self-regulation is what we use to control our impulses, including behavior and emotions. Because infants and toddlers are sorting out how emotions work, caregivers help little ones learn how to regulate them. Emotions are controlled through practice and support. For example, when a toddler is stomping their feet, a parent could say, “I can see you are upset.” This gives the feeling a name, a reference, a description, and a memory that helps build emotional vocabulary.

Promoting infant mental health

Early childhood professionals work with parents to understand how they can best meet their baby’s emotional needs. Here are some tips parents can put into practice at home to foster positive mental health development:

  • Respond – When you see your infant giving cues that they need attention, respond. It may take time to sort out why your baby is crying: Are they hungry, wet, or just wanting some cuddle time? The more you respond to your baby’s needs, the easier it will be to decipher their cries in the future. Babies will also begin to understand that you react to their crying and pay attention to their needs, which builds a bond of trust.
  • Patience – Parenting is challenging. It takes a lot of patience to understand what your baby is trying to tell you through cries and body language. Babies and toddlers cannot self-regulate how they feel nor speak in complete sentences. That’s why they need your patience and help to figure out appropriate responses and navigate their emotions.  
  • Discuss – Your child is never too young to engage in conversation and be introduced to word meanings. Learning about what dogs and popsicles are is just as crucial as defining sadness and happiness. When your baby begins smiling, say to them, “You’re happy!” or “I can see your smile, and I know you’re happy.” These affirmations define and label their feelings, which become stored in their memories to reference again and again. When little ones understand what they feel, they begin regulating their emotions.
  • Routines – Routines help even the smallest babies learn expectations, behaviors, and schedules. Infants quickly learn patterns. When they wake in the morning, they build understanding that it’s time for a fresh diaper followed by a bottle, snuggles, and so on. They’ll also pick up on evening routines: after bath time comes a picture book and their last bottle. These recurring patterns help infants regulate their ability to wake, sleep, and build life skills as they grow older.

If you need help working with your baby, Valley Oaks is here for you. From teaching caregivers how to look for their infant cues to lessons and meetings with professionals, we have the resources to intervene and prevent issues in the future.

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