How does mental health affect babies and toddlers?

Belinda Bantham -- Wed, 10/11/2017 - 09:54

How does mental health affect babies and toddlers?

October is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Hanlie Degenaar, a speech and language therapist at the North-West University’s (NWU's) Institute of Psychology and Wellbeing, shares the following article in support of this important campaign.

Nobody disagrees about the importance of early-development stimulation for babies and toddlers. It is generally accepted that young children (0–3 years) need stimulation through all kinds of educational activities from early on to enhance development. On the other hand, much less is known about the importance of mental health for early development.

We do not often hear about babies and toddlers being diagnosed with mental illnesses, and so the words “baby” and “mental health” in one sentence usually raise eyebrows. The reality is that mental health starts with birth and is the foundation on which early development and learning are based.

What is meant by mental health in babies and during early child development?

Mental health includes a person’s capacity to communicate effortlessly and effectively with others, regulate behaviour, build healthy relationships and act with emotional insight. These skills tend to be associated with older children and adults, but they are an integral part of the development of babies and toddlers.

Baby and early-childhood mental health refers to how, within their families, communities and culture, children under the age of five years gradually learn to:  

  • form close and safe relationships
  • understand and regulate emotions that they experience
  • explore their environment to learn skills.


The earlier and better these skills develop, the better a young child will react to challenges and the people in their environment.


Positive and enjoyable interaction between the young child and his or her environment offers the opportunity for talking, learning, building relationships and regulating emotions. An example of this is a cute, friendly baby who attracts attention and has lots of conversations so that people love to babysit them. A crying, angry baby attracts fewer conversations and is more likely to be left in the care of its mother. A young baby like this possibly feels insecure and does not react comfortably in its environment, learns less and sometimes develops more slowly than other babies. There are many indications that early, regular negative experiences can lead to problems with mental health later in life.

Early experiences influence future mental health

It is estimated that, through early experiences, more than one million new neural connections per second form in the baby’s brain. These neural connections determine how the baby will react now and especially later to challenges and people in its environment. Early positive experiences depend on enjoyable interaction and communication between babies and their parents. When the baby is exposed to parents who always understand their communication signals well, react in a nurturing manner and create the opportunity for interaction, the baby develops in an emotionally healthy way.

 Understanding the communication signals of a baby or toddler is not always easy. Babies and toddlers do not yet have language skills and their speech is often unclear. Many a parent with a crying baby has wished desperately that their baby could talk so that they can understand what would pacify him or her!

Furthermore, work pressure, day care, essential routines and the commitments of parents can easily limit the number of enjoyable interactions between parents and their baby or toddler. Parents may wonder what they can do have more enjoyable interactions with their little ones.

What can parents do?

Although talking to your baby or toddler is very important for language and cognitive development, it can help to not immediately start talking if your baby or toddler starts talking to you or is looking at you. Rather wait for five seconds and smile in a friendly manner. Use that time to closely observe what the baby does.

Also listen intently for any sounds, parts of words or words. Imitate your baby or toddler and wait to see what their reaction is. Remain friendly, interested and nearby. Imitate their reaction again, chat a bit more, and then take the next step in your routine. When you wait for the fourth time, try doing something fun, like tickling the baby.

It is interesting that young children are usually satisfied with five such interactions at a time. The easiest is to apply these steps every day during the usual routine of mealtimes, bedtime, bath time, dressing time and nappy changes.

Interacting like this helps your baby or toddler to experience warmth and acceptance. Mastering routine tasks with you makes a positive contribution to trusting in their own skills. The way you take turns cultivates an awareness of independence, respect and empathy in them. Repetitive routines allow a young child to feel safe and set limits for reinforcing discipline.

Parents also benefit

There is proof that parents also benefit from talking to their children in this way.  Satisfying communication interaction between young children and their parents helps to diminish natural stress about parenthood and parents’ doubts about their own parenting skills. Enjoyable interaction with babies and toddlers can also positively influence parents’ feelings and productivity. Just think how a hearty laugh at the friendly antics of a baby or toddler can lighten a mood and lead to a story that can be repeated in colourful detail!

The month of October is the time to become more aware of mental health, and is therefore also the time to be proactive in paying attention to young children.

Hanlie Degenaar