Mental Health of Children in Early Childhood

What exactly does the phrase mean to you? What does it actually mean in the sector we work in?

Did you know Mental Health is just as important as physical health to a child’s well being?

Infant and early childhood mental health refers to the quality of a child’s first and early relationships and the child’s social and emotional development. When it is talked about infant/early childhood mental health mean’s a child’s ability to:

  • experience warm and responsive relationships with caregivers;
  • create relationships with others;
  • explore and learn;
  • communicate in play; and
  • express and control emotions.

Scientific research completed at Harvard University shows that a child’s early experiences—whether good or bad —affect the development of children’s brain and their health. The first three years of a baby’s life is a time of big growth and development. A newborn’s brain is about 25 percent of its adult weight. By age 3, a child’s brain has mostly grown and is making connections and learning about the world. Babies and toddlers need caring, sensitive adult-child contact to help them develop trust, understanding, compassion, kindness, and conscience. In the years of birth to three,  children experience, regulate, and express emotions; form close and secure interpersonal relationships; and explore the environment and learn- all in the context of family, community, and cultural expectations for young children.

It is evident from extensive research and studies done that babies’ brains do not develop fully when this warm caregiving is missing. Healthy and caring parent/caregiver relationships help children get ready to enter school so they can be happy, regulate their emotions and have a willingness to learn. Research has shown that as a child grows, kind relationships with parents/caregivers shape their self-image and give the child the skills needed to face new challenges.

Early relationships are so important for a young child to have good mental health. Parents and caregivers play a large part in their children’s mental health. When parents and carers are open and caring to their babies and toddlers’ needs they create a secure and trusting relationship that later relationships will be built upon. Infants thrive on human stimuli –parents/carers faces, voices, touch, and even smell. They are born with the need to be with people and not just for food. They love to look at the eyes and mouths and take visual cues with positive body language. Babies respond so positively to adults interacting verbally with them in words and songs.

As babies get older and do more on their own, they still need physical care, but they also need their parents/caregivers for their emotional care. Close and caring relationships help infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers with a healthy- start in their mental health. There are many things that a parent/caregiver can do with their child to help their child’s learning every day.

How to interact 

  • Learn to read babies cues and what soothing techniques work.
  • Talk often with children from the day they are born.
  • Hug them, hold them, and respond to their needs and interests.
  • Listen carefully as children communicate with you.
  • Read aloud to your children every day, even when they are babies. Play and sing with them often.
  • Ensure a safe, orderly, and predictable environment, wherever they are.

It’s important that everyone who works within the early childhood sector also have a basic understanding of children’s social-emotional development, and how critical nurturing relationships with consistent caring adults are key to healthy development.

Social and Emotional Development knowledge is extremely important. In order for children to attain the basic skills that they need such as cooperation, following directions, demonstrating self-control and paying attention, they must have social and emotional skills. Young children’s mental health sets the stage for a child’s functioning across home, school, and community settings mental health challenges are common among children under the age of six. The presence of social, emotional and behavioural challenges compromise young children’s chances for school success and healthy relationships. A child’s positive relationship and attachment with trusting and caring adults is the key to successful emotional and social development.

Factors that can impair these important attachments and relationships:

    • Premature birth
    • In utero trauma such as exposure to drugs or alcohol
    • Parents’ own attachment patterns
    • Adolescent motherhood
    • Postpartum depression in mother
    • Severe abuse &/or neglect in the 1st year of life
    • Multiple caregivers
    • Hospitalizations within the 1st year of life
    • Unresolved pain
    • Insensitive parenting

Educators must have a knowledge of development milestones – Children develop at different rates in different areas; however, developmental milestones give us a general idea of what to look for as a child gets older.  A great tool on the ACECQA website is “Starting Blocks” – this gives a great overview of milestones. Check it out at – www.startingblocks.gov.au/your-childs-development/