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Infant Mental Health Begins With Nurturing Relationships

Too Small To Fail
By Too Small To Fail

When a baby cries for attention or smiles for the first time, he is communicating with the people around him so that they can help him meet his physical and emotional needs.  But how his parents respond to those early communication attempts—as well as the security he feels from these early interactions—will help shape his mental health and social skills for years to come.

Very young children depend on the adults in their lives to help them regulate and express emotions. When a child cries, he expects that his parent or other loved one will pick him up to soothe him; when he gets excited about something he sees, he turns to his caregiver to understand what he is experiencing and will gauge his reaction accordingly. Responsive, nurturing interactions with parents and other caregivers help infants and toddlers understand that they are loved, and also help them understand what they can expect from healthy relationships.

If a young child consistently experiences neglect, or he repeatedly does not receive positive input from his attempts at communication, he experiences distress and may exhibit emotional, developmental or mood disorders. And if a child lives in a high-stress environment wherein the parents or caregivers are themselves experiencing high stress due to income instability, abuse, or illness, it is unlikely he will receive the nurturing he needs in order to develop normal mental and emotional health.

Researchers have even found that pregnant mothers who experience high levels of stress during pregnancy pass on higher levels of cortisol to the developing fetus’s brain, affecting its development. These higher stress hormone levels in utero may contribute to higher rates of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and autism.  

While stress and neglect can be damaging to a baby’s or toddler’s mental and social development, the effects can be reversed. With enough nurturing and positive interactions, even young children that have experienced high stress levels can learn to form healthy relationships with others. Also, the more that parents protect their own mental health by lowering stress levels and seeking professional help if needed, the better their relationships with their children will be.

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Watch this fascinating video from Zero to Three to understand how babies experience distress when parents disengage emotionally. >>

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