Do you ever wonder what goes on in your baby’s mind? Are you worried about being a good parent to your young child? During the early years of life, babies are forging their first relationships and developing emotionally, socially, and cognitively, which serve as the foundation for the rest of their lives. Through these pivotal years, how can you make sure your child grows to become the best version of herself? This toolkit addresses Infant Mental Health, an integral component of raising a healthy child, and provides readings and practical tips for you to better understand your child, foster a positive parent-child relationship, and exercise personal self-care.

  • What is Infant Mental Health (IMH?)
  • Why IMH Matters
  • Social and Emotional Development- What is your baby feeling?
  • Cognitive Development- What is your baby thinking?
  • Maternal Postpartum Depression and Anxiety
  • Self Care & Parental Relationships

What is Infant Mental Health (IMH)?

Did you know that a baby’s brain makes new connections 700 times per second? Your baby is continuously absorbing the world around her. In the first three years of life, babies’ brains make rapid changes in communication, problem-solving, self-control, in addition to relationship building skills.  Each baby relies on you -an important adult in her life- to provide responsive care. Your child sees you as a partner in interaction while supporting her during stressful times. These interactions contribute to an infant’s mental health, which is how well a child develops socially and emotionally from age zero to three.  A baby’s mental health is reflected through her behavior so it’s important to understand the meaning of your child’s behavior.   It is important to note that although IMH refers to children ages 0-3, many of the recommendations can be applied to ages 4-6, also known as Early Childhood.  

Why IMH Matters: 

The first relationships your baby develops will become the blueprint for how she feels about herself and the way she assesses future relationships.  Positive early relationships, also known as secure attachment bonds, are vital for your child to have good mental health. Secure attachment builds trust between you and your child so she can grow up believing the world is a safe place, as explained in the linked video.  For example, if your baby feels safe and secure in her new world, she will go on to have positive behavior at school and be ready to learn.  On the other hand, children who have an insecure attachment with their parents or who experience ongoing stress are at greater risk to develop mental health issues such as anxiety, fear, insecurity, which can affect their ability to learn.  Therefore, your ability to be an attentive, responsive, and loving parent can impact your child’s mental health in the future.

Social and Emotional Development- What is your baby feeling?

It is a common misconception that babies’ needs primarily consist of feeding, changing, burping, and bathing. Though babies do need physical care, research has shown that babies even as young as newborns have social and emotional needs from their primary caregivers.  Social development refers to your child’s ability to have positive healthy relationships with other people; while emotional development refers to the feelings they have about themselves and the people in their lives.

Relationship building with a newborn baby may feel like new territory, but it is a vital part of building your child’s social skills.  There are many ways to connect with your baby in everyday interactions.  For example, research shows skin to skin contact with your newborn is a good way to help your baby feel calm.  Showing affection and cuddling with your child–regardless of her age–is linked to her long-term happiness and success. Relationship building looks different for babies, toddlers, and preschool-aged children.  The infant-parent relationship builds the template from which friendship skills are learned, and then uses those skills with others over time.   As children grow, they are in more social situations with their peers, which requires friendship skills for positive interactions.   Over time, relationships provide opportunities for young children to develop emotional connections with others that enables them to relate to others.  Empathy is the understanding that others have thoughts and feelings too, and there are ways you can help your child develop empathy.

This podcast explains how emotional development starts unfolding at birth as well as ways you can nurture your child’s social and emotional skills, while paying attention to your own emotional/mental state.  Refer to Infant Emotional Development Stages and Tips for a more specific breakdown of babies’ emotional development over the first year of life.  In this brief videoDr. David Hill gives practical tips for parents like you on how to enhance your baby’s emotional development in the first 12 months. Toddlers aged 12-24 months are gaining a sense of self-awareness, beginning to develop empathy, and continue to play near other children.  You may find this age challenging due to your toddler’s strong will, but there are ways you can support your child’s newfound independence while minimizing the tantrums and outbursts.  What about the next few years? The toddler/preschool years are filled with wide ranges of emotional and social needs.  How to help your kid calm down provides some techniques for preschool-aged and school-aged children to assist them in self-control, which has been linked to success in adulthood.

What if you are frequently seeing some negative behaviors?  Separation anxiety and difficulty in transitions are part of normal development in children from infancy to preschool age.  Sometimes it is hard to know what is troubling your young child. You may find yourself saying “stop crying” or “it’s not a big deal” or “you’re going to be okay”. Such minimizing statements can increase their negative behavior or cause new negative behaviors when support and empathy are what they need. Tantrums, meltdowns, and aggression are common behaviors in young children, but could also indicate anxiety.  Making sure you can differentiate aggression from anxiety allows you to help your child in the best way.  As a parent, it is normal to feel overwhelmed while handling many different behavioral issues in your child, however, here are some tips to help you manage those stressful situations.

It is every parent’s wish to raise a positive and successful human being.  It is important to not just focus on modifying a child’s negative behavior but to also keep your eye on the bigger picture.  10 Habits to Shape a Kind, Well Adjusted Child provides important ways parents can positively impact the world they construct for their child and is applicable for children of all ages.

Cognitive Development – What is your baby thinking? How is your baby developing?

Your primary goal as parents is to see your children learn, grow, and excel. With the right resources and support, you can strengthen your child’s cognitive development, or her ability to learn by exploring her environment through play.  Your baby’s first playmate is you, and it is through play that she will feel connected and loved by you! This article lists the various stages of a child’s brain development throughout the first three years of life, as well as some warning signs of developmental delay.  Developmental delay is when your child does not reach developmental milestones typical for her age, and such delay is beyond a temporary lag in behavior. Parents are usually the first ones to notice warning signs and it is important to communicate your concerns and observations to your child’s pediatrician.

Communication, or how your baby exchanges ideas and feelings through verbal and non-verbal ways, is another component of cognitive development in addition to exploration and play. Because your child’s communication skills grow dramatically during the first years of life, it is important to support her every step of the way.  Although many of us usually think that reading is a process for school-aged children, setting a strong foundation for reading–a core component of communication, actually happens in infancy and toddler years. Rich experiences in bodily sensations and movement help builds a strong foundation for learning and particularly, reading readiness. Just as physical activity is helpful for reading, so is reading the right books at the right time. Focusing on both the quality and quantity of shared book reading that tailors books to your child’s age can maximize your child’s cognitive development. For families who speak more than one language, Dual Language Development: Double the Benefit explains the merits of teaching children multiple languages. It encourages parents to not hold back from speaking two languages with their children due to the cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual.

Maternal Postpartum Depression and Anxiety 

Having a new baby brings about so many changes in a mother’s life, including changes in her routine, body, moods, relationships, and more.  In addition to all of these tremendous changes, 10-20% of mothers also experience postpartum depression (PPD) and/or anxiety.  Postpartum Depression Explained provides a good overview of symptoms, causes, myths and facts about PPD.  There are typically 8 warning signs to be aware of following the birth of a baby.  However, it is important to note that postpartum depression and anxiety can look differently for each individual, and one does not need to have all the symptoms to seek help.  The Symptoms of Postpartum Depression (in Plain Mama English) breaks down specific feelings, thoughts, and reactions parents with PPD or PPA may have towards their new babies.  Do I have PPD provides a simple symptom checklist to help parents assess if they have PPD.

It is alarming that many mothers struggle with depression and/or anxiety without telling anyone, which becomes a barrier to bonding with their babies and addressing their own mental health.  PPD makes it harder for a mother to be emotionally available and aware of her child’s needs, which can impact her child’s development, social and emotional capacity, and future mental health.

Self Care & Parental Relationships

Whether you are a new parent, an experienced parent, or want to be a parent in the near future, it is important to know that there is no such thing as being the perfect parent–your child only needs you to be a good enough parent.  Parenthood can bring about so many feelings such as guilt, worry, and fear for your child(ren), and that can cause feelings of being overwhelmed and/or burnt out.  It is important to recognize that unresolved feelings from past experiences in your own childhood can impact the beliefs and attitudes you hold about parenthood.  In this way, those past experiences can unconsciously manifest themselves in how you parent your child.  

While a new baby brings about so many demands on your energy, body, and time, it is important that self-care becomes part of your routine.  Refer to this article for understanding why self-care is important for parenting, and how to include it in your daily life.  Exercise, meeting a friend for coffee, date night with your spouse, or staying in to watch a movie are some ways to take a time out for yourself.  Having children not only impacts your own life, but can add stress to the marital relationship. The normal everyday routine can make it hard for parents to even have an uninterrupted conversation with each other.  The One Conversation that New Parents Need to Stay Connected provides important rituals you should engage in to stay connected with your partner, in addition to differences in the way men and women parent.  What Kids Learn from your Marriage provides some key ingredients for a healthy marriage, and how it impacts children.  

Additional Resources
Resource  Web Address Description
Center for Disease Control The CDC provides access to materials like positive parenting tips, free educational materials, children’s mental health resources, and more.
Zero to Three Zero to Three works to ensure that babies and toddlers benefit from the connections that are critical to their health, well being, and development. They do this by transforming the science of early childhood into helpful resources, practical tools and responsive policies for millions of parents, professionals and policymakers.
Ages & Stages Questionnaire Ages to Stages provides accurate, reliable, developmental and social-emotional screening for children between birth and 6 years of age.
Pathways Provides resources for tracking milestones in their child’s development, including the motor skills, senses, communication and more. Their sensory toolkit includes materials that help with earlier identification and therapy for children’s sensory issues, which can help children reach their fullest potential.
Postpartum Support International (PSI) Provides PSI Support Coordinators and area resources such as free telephone support, groups, reliable services, local events, trainings, and more.
Brazelton presentation – 4th trimester Dr. T. Berry Brazelton discusses newborns and the impact their environment has on their behavior.

This toolkit was authored by Saara Patel, LLMSW & Infant Mental Health Specialist, Bessma Haider, BA, and Nushrat Rahman, BA with support from Madiha Tahseen, PhD, Carol Oleksiak, LMSW, IMH-E®, Sameera Ahmed, PhD, and Sarrah AbuLughod, MA.

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