Four Ways to Support Infant and Toddler Mental Health
Adults may falsely believe that the resilience young children possess makes them immune to the effects of trauma and adversity and may, thus, miss important opportunities to intentionally support infant and toddler mental health. Studies have shown that early prevention and intervention services and systems yield far more positive and lasting effects than services implemented in later years. For this reason, prevention and intervention are key to promoting positive infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH).
To most effectively address the mental health of infants and toddlers, individuals must first understand the concept of IECMH. Mental health can be defined as one’s emotional and social well-being; it impacts how someone thinks, acts, and how they feel about themselves and others. Infant and early childhood mental health, specifically, is known as “the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years old to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture.”
At this age, the impact of adults is paramount to a child’s mental health. Infants and toddlers rely on adults to help them regulate and express their emotions. Through close, secure relationships with caregivers, infants and toddlers learn about others’ expectations and what they can expect from them in return. The field of IECMH also includes situations that put infants’ and toddlers’ social and emotional well-being at risk, behavioral indicators of struggle, and supports and interventions to protect infants’ and toddlers’ mental health.
Why is IECMH Important?
During the first few years of life, a child’s brain grows and develops rapidly. It is during this time that the foundation for how a child will relate to others and manage and express their emotions is laid. As a result, interventions during this period can be much more powerful and have more lasting effects than those that are implemented in later stages of development. With this in mind, it is critical that adults are aware of what IECMH is, know what affects it, understand the warning signs, and implement support strategies for IECMH.
What Factors Affect IECMH?
There are two main factors that influence an infant or toddler’s mental health—attachment and personal characteristics. An infant or toddler’s relationship with a caregiver yields the largest impact on their mental health. Humans are born to seek out others for emotional responsiveness; when this is not present (as a result of a variety of factors including parental stress, depression, lack of knowledge of how to appropriately respond, illness, homelessness, etc.), the child’s mental health is impacted. On the other hand, when a secure, responsive, predictable relationship is created, an infant and toddler experiences a sense of social-emotional well-being including an ability to effectively manage stress.
When it comes to a child’s temperament, the “goodness of fit” between their temperament and their environment plays the largest role. Ideally, a caregiver’s natural temperament and parenting style would match with the child’s temperament. In the event this is not the case, the infant or toddler’s temperament may not be respected or accommodated and caregivers may need assistance in changing their response to allow the child to reach their full potential.
How do Infants and Toddlers Tell us They are Hurting?
Infants and toddlers will provide clues of their mental health through their behaviors. Closely observing young children to identify their typical patterns of behavior and temperament will allow Montessori guides to recognize persistent changes. For students who may be newer in the classroom, educators can look for behavior that is unexpected for children based on age and developmental milestones. Inquiring with caregivers on behaviors they are seeing at home can also be helpful in identifying what is considered normal behavior for each child.
These are some common behavioral indicators guides can look for that may indicate a stressed or distressed infant or toddler:
- A change in appetite, bowel movements, and/or sleep patterns
- A change in activity level (less engaged; more lethargic; unable to sit still; unfocused)
- A change in attentiveness (decreased attention span and persistence at a preferred task; increased listless roaming)
- A change in level of social engagement with peers and/or caregivers
- A reduced tolerance for frustration, which may present as fussiness, whining, or irritability
- Difficulty being comforted when upset
- Increased aggression or anger with little or no provoking; an explosive response to an event without an apparent trigger
- A change in seeking comfort and attention from educators, such as wanting to be held more often than usual or not wanting to be held at all
- An increase in self-soothing behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or rocking
- Not making noises very often (such as cooing or babbling sounds) or not using language that is expected developmentally for their age
- Avoidance of eye contact with others
- Developmental regression, such as potty accidents for children who had been experiencing success with potty learning or children who had a very well-developed vocabulary but began talking less and using more gestures
- Separation anxiety or withdrawal from caregiver
Four Ways to Support Infant and Toddler Mental Health
- Focus on joy. Doing something that makes you smile or laugh can be the best medicine to prevent the negative effects of stress and anxiety. For infants and toddlers, some great ways to get endorphins flowing and bring happiness is through music, movement, and outdoor playtime.
- Learn to regulate one’s own emotions to be fully available to students. Through a process of self-awareness and self-care, educators can become more in-tune with their own emotions. Developing an understanding of how one is feeling allows guides to work through those emotions and to learn how to regulate them appropriately. Effectively managing one’s own emotions empowers them to be present in the moment, making them available to meet the needs of their students.
- Learn how to identify and respond to students’ emotions and behaviors. Carefully observing infants and toddlers assists guides in understanding typical emotions and behaviors, allowing them to recognize noticeable differences that may be indicators of anxiety and distress.
- Follow learned Montessori principles and actions. Fostering a child’s independence will develop a strong sense of self and will help them when dealing with negative emotions. Allowing a child to help with routines and self-care activities to the extent possible will help instill a sense of pride. Offering limited choices, especially during difficult times when a child refuses to engage in a specific activity (for example, getting dressed) will empower the child and help to ease the existence of a power struggle. Labeling, acknowledging, and validating a child’s emotions to help them understand what and how they are feeling and that their feelings are accepted is critical.
Each of the strategies above are helpful in maintaining happy, healthy relationships with children and in supporting their mental health. However, it is important to note that if any of the aforementioned warning signs are present, guides should engage in careful observation and take detailed, subjective notes. Communicating what one is seeing openly and honestly with a child’s parents and caregivers is vital so that they might make a decision they feel is right in regards to consulting with a medical or mental health provider who specializes in infant and toddler mental health.
About the Author
Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori in-home teacher and nanny, a Montessori educational consultant for the Andrew’s Institute, a Montessori educator for adult learners, and a volunteer moderator for the Montessori at Home 0 – 3 Facebook page. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a School Psychologist intern. She is AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.