Developing good mental health begins at birth. The way babies are held, talked to and cared for teaches them how they are valued and has a huge impact on shaping who they will become.
The first days, months and years of life are when parents and caregivers can promote strong and positive mental health in their children, according to Zero to Three—a national nonprofit organization that promotes the health and development of infants and toddlers.
Remember that early experiences matter a great deal, so engage in loving, responsive and positive interactions with your child. Try to understand the meaning behind your child’s behavior. The better you can understand what drives a young child’s behavior, the better you can meet their needs.
For a variety of reasons, infants and young children can have mental health issues. Factors include medical and developmental disorders, as well as exposure to adversity, such as trauma or the stress that can occur with situations such as witnessing violence or living in poverty. According to a study by the Department of Health and Human Services, between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children between birth and 5 experience an emotional or behavioral disturbance.
Children’s mental health is crucial because mental health is essential to overall health and well-being. If concerns about a child’s emotional and mental health emerge, they are treatable if identified early.
Don’t Wait to Address Warning Signs
If any of the signs below in young children happen regularly or are especially distinct, you should talk to a doctor or provider for a referral to a mental health professional as early as possible. These professionals can help you understand whether the behavior is a normal part of your child’s healthy development or whether your child has more serious mental or behavioral issues.
- Frequent temper tantrums
- Excessive worrying
- Sudden or intense fears (may be accompanied by fast heartbeat or breathing)
- Avoiding friends and family; wanting to be alone
- Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Sleep problems, such as difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep or bed-wetting
- Frequent nightmares
- Refusing to go to daycare or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Regression in previously acquired skills (i.e., return to bed-wetting)
- Low frustration tolerance
- Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
- Frequent complaints about physical problems or ailments
- Persistent disobedient or aggressive behavior
Treating Childhood Mental Health Disorders
If you suspect your child may have a childhood mental health disorder, experts say early intervention is the best response. Interventions geared toward young children rarely involve the child alone and usually engage the parent(s) or caregiver together with the infant or young children.
Research and clinical expertise have resulted in effective treatments for infant and early childhood mental health disorders, according to Zero to Three. Such interventions work to build good caregiving skills, teach problem solving and coping strategies, and enhance support systems.
For babies, they promote social, emotional and cognitive development by nurturing healthy relationships and creating opportunities for play, communication and learning.
Zero to Three cites these plans as options for treating a variety of disorders that can occur in early childhood:
- Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP), which addresses symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), which focuses on changing parent-child interaction patterns.
- Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC), which helps parents provide nurturing care and helps children boost their behavioral skills.
Early Head Start
Early Head Start (EHS) is a federal program that supports the social, emotional, cognitive and physical development in economically disadvantaged young children. Untreated mental health problems can start early and get worse over time, with potentially serious consequences for early learning, social development, and lifelong health. By focusing on early mental health treatment, it’s possible to change the course for children and reduce the need for treatment later in life.
Although a child can be enrolled anytime from birth to age 3, the intent of EHS is to intervene early and provide services throughout the first three years of a child's life. For more information, contact Early Head Start at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 844-261-3752.
The Tennessee Early Intervention System (TEIS) is a voluntary educational program for families with children (from birth through age 2) with disabilities or developmental delays.
Read more about prevention and early intervention programs.
Brain Architecture Video:
Emotional Milestones Video:
Social-Emotional Strategies Video (Click here for the Spanish version):
Toxic Stress Video (Click here for the Spanish version):