Your child’s mental health is fairly complicated. It’s also critical to their overall health and wellness. We often think of mental health as it pertains to adults, but just like growth and physical development, research shows that mental health is something that should be considered starting at birth.
When children are very young, their brains are extremely sensitive to environmental stress. Toxic stress, defined as high levels of prolonged stress, can have life-long effects on children. Limiting stress for young children is critical for their early mental health. One of the most fundamental ways we can help eliminate toxic stress is by building a strong relationship foundation from the very 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
By building a secure attachment with your baby, you are providing them with 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 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. Simply allow your baby to watch your facial expressions and begin to mimic them. Talk to your baby, read to your baby, sing to your baby 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 the sound of your voice.
Another key piece to building that secure attachment is to respond to your baby’s needs as soon as possible. You cannot spoil a little baby! When you hear her begin to cry, pick her up and comfort her so that she learns that her needs will be met and that will keep her calm as she will begin to trust you as her care-giver.
It is important for your partner to bond with the baby and form this sense of attachment as well. Don’t worry if this doesn’t happen immediately. Sometimes it is a process of falling in love for true bonding to occur.
By doing these things, you are laying 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, very dependent on back and forth communication between the care-giver and the child. These interactions are often called “serve and return” and research shows that it is the most critical predictor of future academic skills as well as self-esteem and confidence. Learn more about serve and return from this video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
This back and forth communication starts long before your child is able to talk. Some studies have found that babies understand the pause and flow of conversations very early. Begin talking to your baby when she is a newborn. She will engage with you through eye contact at first, then babbles, then gestures and eventually words of her own. You are providing the foundation for her speech and communication from the day she is born. By providing your baby the words to fully express herself, you are building her autonomy, self-esteem and independence. This is a really important part of your child’s mental health.
As your child gets older and is more verbal, encourage as much back and forth communication as possible. Ask questions and welcome questions from him. Have conversations whenever possible.
As soon as your baby begins to sit up, reach for toys, and interact with her world, encourage as much independence 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. By allowing your child to complete tasks on his own, fail sometimes and try again, you are teaching resilience and that builds self-esteem and confidence.
Offer lots of encouragement and praise, but when he looks to you for help and he is not in any danger, say “you can do it!”
Empower with Skills
By providing children with the skills necessary to learn and grow, you are setting 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 pre-school, kindergarten, playgroups, soccer, karate and any other life experience with the skills necessary to be successful. This is really 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 important to have social interaction with other children, meaningful relationships with family members, proper nutrition, enough sleep, and the list goes on and 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 a great start for a lifetime of strong mental health.