Empowering parents to build the mental health of babies and toddlers

Empowering parents to build the mental health of babies and toddlers

By Kerrie Gottliebsen

Contrary to traditional beliefs, babies and toddlers can and do suffer mental illness. Toxic stress in early childhood is associated with persistent effects on the nervous system and stress hormone systems that can damage developing brains and lead to lifelong problems in learning, behaviour, and both physical and mental health.

So how do babies and toddlers experience mental health problems? Ed Tronick, PhD explains; “Infants make meaning about themselves and their relation to the world of people and things, and when that “meaning-making” goes wrong, it can lead to development of mental health problems”

“Some infants may come to make meaning of themselves as helpless and hopeless, and they may become apathetic, depressed and withdrawn. Others seem to feel threatened by the world and may become hyper-vigilant and anxious.”  Apparent sadness, anger, withdrawal and disengagement can occur “when infants have difficulty gaining meaning in the context of relationships”

One barrier to mental health care for young children is the mistaken impression that babies and toddlers do not develop mental health problems and are immune to the effects of early adversity and trauma because they will ‘grow out of‘ it.

“We know how mental health challenges appear in adults, but not many people know how they appear in a baby or toddler. But just because you can’t see them or decipher them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there” said Director of Clinical Services/Nursing Kirsty Evans.

“Parents, babies and toddlers admitted to a Tweddle Residential program have often experienced trauma – and a distressed parent means a distressed baby. To the untrained eye, a baby might just look quiet, or it might be distressed and resistant to being settled but skilled clinicians know how to read a baby or a toddler’s cues” she said.

“The baby might be frowning and looking scared, it might have a frightened parent or the parent might be frightening. Responses might include turning away, shrugging and trying to make itself smaller. A toddler might appear ambivalent or in hyper-arousal mode, it might flinch to the touch, it might be exhausted, hungry or worried about arguing parents. Yes, we see worried babies” she said.

“What we know is that you have a very powerful window of opportunity to help the parents understand their challenges and empower them to change the future for their child by learning to connect”

According to the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child, when parents and professionally staffed early parenting and childhood education programs pay attention to young children’s cognitive, emotional and social needs they have maximum impact on the a child’s development and mental health.

The first 1000 days of life are the greatest predictor of lifelong physical and mental health and the capacity to develop resilience. “Tweddle has been working with the last three generations of Victorians – gaining 99 years of expertise of early life, parenting and brain development,” said Ms Evans. “Infant mental health is vital to eco-system of every business; children, partners, families and communities”

If you need support, call:

  • Tweddle Child & Family Health Service (for parents of children 0-4) 03) 9689 1577
  • Victorian Maternal and Child Health Line — 132 229
  • Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) — 1300 726 306
  • Lifeline — 131 114
  • BeyondBlue  1300 22 4636

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