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Parents and Caregivers Are Essential to Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health

The developmental journey for infants and very young children starts in utero and continues at an explosive pace through their first five years of life. There are many milestones along the way in all areas of development: language and communication, thinking skills, physical movement and social and emotional growth. As defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC,) “Mental health in childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones* and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.1 How your child plays, learns, speaks, acts, and moves offers important clues about your child’s development.2

In this challenging time of constant change, parents and caregivers may wonder, “How can I support the mental health of this baby?” The good news is that there are ways to provide support just through everyday interactions. Here are a few ideas and tips that every parent or caregiver can use.

Start with self-awareness

As a parent or caregiver, your relationship sets the course for a baby’s development. Your own attitudes and moods affect every interaction. Sara Phou, LCSW, director of Erikson’s Center for Children and Families (CCF) says, “Kids are very keen observers. They are taking in information left and right and categorizing it in their brains. They are acutely aware when there are changes in their caregiver’s mood.” She adds, “And our own relational history, all of it gets brought to parenting. If we can understand and name it, there’s a level personal power in that awareness.” Parents and caregivers can best support their young children by first understanding themselves and their own emotional reactions so they can regulate them while engaging in the very demanding work of caregiving.

Be Predictable

Responding to children consistently is one of the best ways to support their mental health. With so much growth and change happening internally, a stable, safe environment helps babies and young children establish trust, and when they feel secure, they are better able to learn. Simple routines are helpful. The work of young children is play—they use it to learn new skills and to express their emotions. The secure attachment you build with your child grounds their mental health over time, through multiple, predictable interactions that create trust and understanding.

Respond to changes in behavior—they are telling you something

When issues arise, like changes in sleeping, toileting, or tantrums, parents and caregivers must tune in even more to what your baby is communicating through their behavior and adjust your responses to support their emotional health. This isn’t always easy, and it’s okay to seek help from therapists like those at CCF. You’re not on your own as you engage in the incredibly challenging and rewarding work of raising emotionally healthy children.


* Developmental milestones are things most children — 75% or more — can do by a certain age.

1 “Children’s Mental Health”, CDC–Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 23, 2023

2 “CDCs Developmental Milestones”, CDC–Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 8, 2024

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