Your child’s mental health is pretty complicated. It’s also critical to their overall health and wellness. We often think of mental health as it pertains to adults, but like growth and physical development, research shows that mental health should be considered starting at birth.1
When children are very young, their brains are susceptible to environmental stress. Toxic stress, defined as high levels of prolonged stress, can have life-long effects on children.2 Limiting stress for young children is critical for their early mental health. One of the most fundamental ways to help eliminate toxic stress is by building a strong relationship foundation from the beginning of their lives. Your relationship with your baby is an integral part of their sense of self-esteem, independence, and confidence—three key factors in mental health.
Building That Relationship With Your Child Can Be Broken Down Into Four Key Concepts:
Bonding and Attachment
Building a secure attachment with your baby gives them a strong foundation that allows them to feel safe, secure, and cared for. One great way of building this attachment is to perform baby massage (infant massage) on your baby. The first communication your baby receives is through the skin. The skin-to-skin contact of massage helps your baby relax and feel calm and nurtured.
You can also bond with your baby through face-to-face contact. Allow your baby to watch your facial expressions and begin to mimic them. Talk to your baby, read to your baby, sing, and cuddle with your baby as much as possible. Carry your baby in a carrier so he is close to you and can feel your body and hear your voice.
Another critical piece to building that secure attachment is to respond to your baby’s needs as soon as possible. You cannot spoil a baby! When you hear her begin to cry, pick her up and comfort her and she will learn that you will meet her needs. This will keep her calm as she begins to trust you as her caregiver.
Your partner must also bond with the baby and form this attachment. Don’t worry if this doesn’t happen immediately. Sometimes it is a process of falling in love for true bonding to occur.
Doing these things lays the foundation for a secure, predictable, and responsible relationship, which is the first step in your child’s mental health and well-being.
Early child development is a highly interactive process dependent on back-and-forth communication between the caregiver and the child. These interactions are often called “serve and return.” Research shows this is the most critical predictor of future academic skills, self-esteem, and confidence.3 Learn more about “serve and return” from this video by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.4
This back-and-forth communication starts long before your child can talk. Some studies have found that babies understand the pause and flow of conversations very early.5 Begin talking to your baby when she is a newborn. She will first engage with you through eye contact, then babbles, gestures, and eventually words. You provide the foundation for her speech and communication from the day she is born. You build her autonomy, self-esteem, and independence by providing your baby with the words to express herself fully. This is a vital part of your child’s mental health.
Encourage as much back-and-forth communication as possible as your child gets older and is more verbal. Choose dinner topics that get kids to talk, ask questions, and welcome questions from him. Learn some conversation starters and use them whenever possible.
As soon as your baby begins to sit up, reach for toys, interact with her world, and encourage independence as much as possible. Resist the urge to swoop in and help as soon as he struggles. If you always move the toy closer to him when he reaches, why should he practice crawling? If you always steady the block tower before it falls, how will she learn to cope with frustration and try again? Allowing your child to complete tasks independently, fail sometimes, and try again teaches resilience, which builds self-esteem and confidence.
Offer lots of encouragement and praise, but when he looks to you for help and is not in danger, say, “you can do it!”
Empower with Skills
By providing children with the skills necessary to learn and grow, you set them up for success. Familiarize yourself with kindergarten readiness skills early and begin working on them when your child is still a toddler. Work on scissor skills, getting dressed, climbing steps, and memorizing her address. By giving your child these experiences, they will enter preschool, kindergarten, playgroups, soccer, karate, and any other life experience with the skills necessary to succeed. This is important for their sense of independence, pride in their abilities, and success later in life.
So many factors contribute to mental health! It is also essential to have social interaction with other children, meaningful relationships with family members, proper nutrition, enough sleep, and so on. If you provide your child with a secure attachment, lots of communication, encouragement to try, and a wealth of skills, you are off to an excellent start for a lifetime of strong mental health.