Mental health for babies and toddlers: what it is and why it matters
Children’s brains grow and develop faster in the first 5 years of life than at any other time. This is when the foundations for lifelong learning, behaviour and health, including mental health, are laid down. If you support your child’s mental health from birth, you lay the foundations for good mental health throughout your child’s life.
What good mental health in babies and toddlers looks like
- make eye contact
- show interest in people and surroundings
- enjoy attention from their parents or carers and respond with smiles or cuddles
- start to communicate with their face, voice and gestures like waving and pointing
- start copying your gestures
- cry when they need something and calm down when their needs are met
- get upset or uncomfortable around people they don’t know and want reassurance from you, especially towards the end of their first year.
At 1-2 years, a child with good mental health will probably:
- be strongly attached to you – for example, they might get upset when they’re separated from you, but they can be soothed and cope with brief separations
- start to develop self-regulation – that is, the ability to understand and manage their own behaviour and reactions
- have tantrums but also start learning how to manage big feelings
- start to show that they understand other people’s feelings – for example, they might hug you or say ‘kiss it better’ if you stub your toe
- start wanting to do things themselves.
At 2-3 years, a child with good mental health will probably:
- continue to interact with other people and build healthy relationships
- enjoy being around people other than their parents or carers
- copy what other people say and do – that is, they’re learning how to behave appropriately
- start learning about taking turns and sharing
- start using words to express their emotions.
The signs of good mental health can look different if you have a premature baby, your child is unwell or your child has a disability. It’s a good idea to talk to your paediatrician, GP or child and family health nurse about the mental health signs to expect in your child.
Relationships and good mental health for babies and toddlers
Baby and toddler cues can often tell you what your child needs. But it’s OK if you’re not sure. The most important thing is that your child knows you’re always there for them, because this helps them feel safe and secure.
- Just be with your baby. Take time to watch your baby, regularly touch and cuddle your baby, make eye contact and smile at your baby. This helps you get to know each other and build your bond.
- Regularly spend time together doing things you and your baby enjoy. For example, go for a walk outside, meet other babies and parents, and listen to music together.
- Soothe your baby’s crying calmly and consistently.
- Talk to your baby warmly and gently as often as you can. It doesn’t really matter what you talk about – just describing what you’re doing together is fine.
- Tune in to your baby’s interests. For example, if baby shows you Teddy, you could say ‘Yes, it’s Teddy. Is Teddy having a cuddle?’
- Be gentle with your baby when you’re interacting or handling them.
- Adapt your parenting to your baby’s temperament, as you start to understand more about your baby.
- Give your toddler plenty of positive attention. This can be as simple as getting down to your toddler’s level when they show you something in the sandpit.
- Use a positive, constructive and consistent approach to guide your toddler’s behaviour. This includes giving your toddler praise when they’re behaving well.
- Tell your toddler that you love them. You can also show love through your body language and nonverbal communication – for example, by making eye contact, giving a hug or smiling at your child.
- Respond to your toddler’s attempts to communicate. For example, if your toddler points to a toy, you could say, ‘Do you want the truck?’
- Label your toddler’s emotions. This helps your toddler learn about emotions and how to manage them. It can also help your toddler feel understood.
- Help your toddler learn to manage their behaviour and reactions. You can do this by using clear rules to guide your child in challenging situations and praising them when they follow the rules.
Good physical health is important for mental health. You can help your child stay physically fit and well by encouraging them to eat well, helping them get enough sleep, and giving them plenty of opportunities for physical activity.
Play and good mental health for babies and toddlers
- feel loved, happy and safe
- develop self-esteem and confidence
- build relationships and learn about caring for others
- develop social skills, language and communication skills
- develop well overall.
- Follow your child’s lead in play. This sends the message that what your child is interested in is important to you.
- When playing with your child, help only if your child needs it. For example, you can hold a toy while your child puts the pieces in it. This gives your child a sense of achievement and builds their confidence.
- Use play to help your child express and learn about emotions. Play ideas to develop emotions include puppet play, singing songs and nursery rhymes and messy play.
- Read and share stories with your child. Reading promotes brain development and imagination, develops language and emotions, and strengthens relationships.
- Give your child plenty of opportunities to play outside. Your child can explore the natural environment, test their physical limits, express themselves and build self-confidence.
- Give your child opportunities to learn about and practise sharing, especially as they move into the toddler years. Taking turns and sharing while playing with blocks is a great way to start developing this important social skill.
A safe environment and good mental health for babies and toddlers
A safe and predictable environment helps babies and toddlers feel safe, secure and looked after. This is important for developing good mental health.
Ideas for creating a safe environment that promotes good baby and child mental health
- Have routines. Routines create predictability in your family life. For young babies, it’s best to balance routines with responsiveness. As children get older, you can create routines for different times of the day, including bedtime routines.
- Make sure your home is safe. You can make a safe but creative environment for your child to play and explore in by supervising your child and looking for risks.
- Try to keep conflict with your partner away from your child. If your child sees kind and respectful relationships around them, your child feels safe and secure. They also learn to be kind and respectful with others.
Signs babies and toddlers might need help with mental health
For babies and toddlers, mental health warning signs might include:
- crying in an inconsolable way
- being frequently unsettled or irritable and difficult to soothe
- not wanting to make eye contact
- withdrawing from you or not responding to you
- consistently not sleeping or eating well
- consistently losing weight and not growing as expected
- being extremely stressed and anxious about separating from you
- losing skills over several months
- behaving in difficult ways – for example, throwing things, hitting, having persistent and severe tantrums, or persistently biting, pinching or pulling people’s hair
- having unexplained or sudden changes in behaviour.
What to do if you’re worried about baby or toddler mental health
You know your child best. If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, development or wellbeing, it’s important to seek professional help.
There are various professional support options, including:
- your GP
- your child and family health nurse
- your paediatrician
- your local community health centre
- mental health services
- parent helplines.
If you don’t know where to find the most appropriate services for your family, your GP is a good place to start.
Looking after yourself: why it’s important to children’s mental health
Looking after yourself helps you stay physically, mentally and emotionally well. This is good for you, and it’s also very important for your child. When you’re well, you’re better able to give your child the warmth, care and attention they need to grow and thrive.
Looking after yourself includes:
- eating well and doing some exercise
- trying to get enough rest
- making time for things you enjoy
- keeping up with old friends or making new ones
- watching out for and managing stress, anxiety and anger
- getting support from family, friends, your community and support services.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed or you’re struggling with your mental health, parenting or relationship, getting professional support is a very good idea. You could start by talking to your GP.
Here are more ways to get support:
- Call a parenting hotline to get free parenting advice.
- Call Lifeline on 131 114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 for mental health support.
- Check Head to Health for online programs, forums and information on specific mental health topics.
- Call Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277 or Family Relationships Online on 1800 050 321 to talk to government-funded relationship counsellors.
- Call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) if there are problems in your relationships like family violence, or you feel you might hurt your child.