Pediatrician’s Corner

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, M.D., MPH, County of San Diego Child Health Medical Officer
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, M.D., MPH, County of San Diego Child Health Medical Officer

Supporting your Child for Good Mental Health

Often, when we think about babies and toddlers, we don’t think about mental health. For babies and toddlers, good mental health means things like feeling supported, feeling safe, interacting with their caregivers and being happy. Children grow up in the context of their caregiving relationships with their parents or other important adults. The focus of infant mental health is a child’s caregiving relationship because the quality of that relationship can have a great impact on all parts of a child’s development – from learning, to social skills and mental health issues as they grow up.

A healthy relationship between a parent or other caregiver and their child can serve as a buffer against threats to child development, such as violence exposure or poverty. A relationship that doesn’t meet a child’s needs, can sometimes risk a child’s healthy development and well-being. Healthy relationships let children learn about the world around them, have chances to handle difficult emotions or frustrations, and learn to anticipate and recognize other people’s behaviors and emotions.

Children who do not receive support and form relationships with their parents – or have relationships where they don’t seem to regularly get comfort from their parent when they are upset – are at the highest risk of developing mental health problems.

There are many things parents can do to support their children’s mental health and emotional well-being.

As a parent, you can support your children’s emotional development by creating a safe and consistent environment. Make sure that your children know that they are protected – both physically and emotionally – and can count on you to protect her from dangers and to successfully comfort them in times of distress.

For your baby, you need to respond to signs of distress. Young infants won’t be spoiled, and so respond to your baby’s signals when they need some comforting or help. This is an important way of building their confidence and shows that you are there to look out for them.

shutterstock_pic1_640Interact with your children – talk to them and make eye contact from the day they are born – during play time and tummy time. Follow their gaze to get a sense of what is interesting to them. When it is appropriate, let them explore the object of their interest—bring it closer so that they can touch it, taste it, feel it, and explore it in the ways that infants do.

Feeding time is another time to fully interact with your children and be happy together. It is a chance to pay attention to the same things. Make eye contact and watch how your children explores how things taste, how they feel, and giving them opportunities for starting to make sounds or talking to you.

Be there to support your child when they are scared, when they want to show you something, or when you are just hanging out and playing in the park. Pay attention to what they are paying attention to. Show them new things. As they form a secure relationship with you and feel protected, they are able to explore the world around them with more confidence.

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