Baby and toddler mental health? Do we really have to worry about that at their age?
It might feel strange to imagine a toddler with anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges, but it can happen. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that in the U.S. alone, about 4.4 million children 3 to 17 have anxiety, about 1.9 children 2 to 7 experience depression, and 6 million children in this same age group are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
These statistics make it clear that mental health should be a primary focus of parents and caregivers, even for young children that haven’t reached school age.
Unfortunately, the youngest population of babies and toddlers may not get the mental health checkups and help they need. This is primarily because of stigmas that make us believe that young children are immune to mental health struggles. Statistics are showing, however, that anxiety and depression diagnoses in young children are increasing in recent years.
Why It’s Never to Early to Work on Mental Health
Although babies and toddlers often seem carefree, they too can experience stressful situations. Research shows that children age 0 to 5 can experience mental health issues, but they often get overlooked because of their age.
Babies and toddlers are at a critical stage when their experiences shape their futures. It’s essential to promote mental health from the moment a baby is born through affection, bonding, and security. The way parents and caregivers interact with and help little ones through situations that affect their mental health can set them up to effectively handle stressful situations as they get older.
Promoting Mental Health Through Toddlerhood and Beyond
Babies and toddlers may not understand mental health, but they can certainly feel big emotions. Here are a few tips for promoting mental health in your little one:
- Be the emotional support they need. Children of all ages look to their parents and caregivers for emotional support. It’s why your baby calms down when you come into the room and your toddler runs to you for a hug after a disagreement with a playmate. Be emotionally available to your baby with plenty of smiles, hugs, and kind words.
- Talk about emotions. Toddlers can start to talk about emotions with you. You can help your toddler work through emotions by labeling their feelings: “You feel disappointed that we can’t go to the park right now. I understand.” You can also label your own emotions, explaining why you feel a certain way.
- Set a good example. Being in-tune with your own emotions can show your baby or toddler that there’s nothing wrong with feeling them. But, be mindful of how you react to situations. Take a deep breath, meditate, or use another favorite calming technique to cope with your own emotions. Help your child learn to cope with their emotions, too (see our BabySparks activities Calming Bottle and Building a Cozy Corner for inspiration).
- Know your child’s caregivers. Daycare providers, babysitters, friends, and family who are around your child also play a role in your child’s mental health. Be sure to choose supportive, loving caregivers.
- Nurture self-esteem. Building confidence in your little one is a crucial step toward fostering positive mental health. Give them plenty of opportunities for age-appropriate independence. Be sure to praise their efforts. You might even stand in front of the mirror each morning with your child and name a few things you love about them!
There are many ways to nurture your child’s mental health early on, but if see signs of extreme anger, inconsolable crying, an inability or unwillingness to bond with caregivers, or frequent sadness, it’s a good idea to check in with your pediatrician for guidance.