Babies are like smart phones.
May 2, 2018 I Karen Wolf
Yes, I actually titled my article that way. Read on to find out why.
I recently took a new position as an Early Childhood Mental Health Liaison with little ones zero to three years old. I have been working with children aged 5-18 with severe emotional and behavioral challenges for the last 13 years. Often the first question I get regarding my new position is, "Do kids that young have mental health problems?". It is not that I don't appreciate the concern that accompanies the question, but it is the wrong question. Yes, I have already come across some children in my new role who need extra attention where their mental health is concerned. But that misses the point. It is not so much that these very young children having mental health 'problems', but that they have mental health to begin with that people are just beginning to recognize and prioritize. There is no other time in development that experiences, information and engagement with the world has quite the same impact it does during infancy and toddlerhood.
Think of it like your smartphone. Why not? Our smartphones seem to be tops on the list of things many of us think about and attend to. When you first get a new phone, do you not take the time to ensure it has all of the information you need, to secure it in some sort of case that protects it from injury, and organize the information in a way that makes it easier to access? Over time, you get rid of information you don't need or that causes the phone to work less effectively. And as we all know from recent news, your smartphone, via the internet, is constantly learning things about you and using it to decide how you will interact with other components of the internet. Sound about right?
Well, babies are not so different (and yet so much cuter!). Ideally when a baby is born, parents begin right away to make sure she/he has everything needed (e.g. food, shelter, clothing, and affection). What we often neglect is that babies are 'downloading', if you will, all sorts of information from their environment and through the relationships being formed with them. Those tiny brains and bodies are absorbing it all. For a baby, safety is always going to be paramount. They are completely reliant on others to stay alive. It is clear that the main form of communication for a baby is crying. And anyone who has been around a fussy baby knows that it is not an adult's preferred communication technique. Now, there are times when a baby is just going to cry. But generally over time they calm when needs are met. Babies are also incredibly connected to the mood of their caregivers. So, the calmer you are, the calmer the baby in your care will be (most of the time).
And it follows that the more of the right input you give a baby, the more she/he will thrive. What kind of stimulation does he receive? Reading, singing, playful objects, loving touches, and down time when necessary are all good ingredients in the recipe of creating mentally healthy babies. Genetics (the 'nature' side of things) does play its part, but the research increasingly shows that genes express themselves differently depending on the context in which they are expressed. So environmental (often referred to as the 'nurture') aspects have a HUGE impact.
Ever had one of those experiences where you are talking about something with people or looking something up on Google and all of a sudden ads for those things begin to appear in your Facebook news feed? You'd have to be living under a bit of a rock not to have heard the recent controversy over privacy with regard to Facebook. Well, in this case the 'invasion' of privacy is meant to make the advertising experience more worthwhile for you and the advertisers. Other times those browsing or clicking preferences get into the hands of the wrong people who use it to do things like influence elections. It's all about what information gets in and how it is used. Again I can draw some comparisons. Babies are constantly soaking up what is happening around them. How the adults in their lives feel, act, and interact has a direct influence on how the baby feels and functions. The right kind of input leads to a positive outcome. When caregivers are stable, consistent, and in healthy relationships themselves, babies are calmer, more interactive, and overall healthier. Input that is less desirable (e.g. parental stress, domestic disputes or violence, parental depression or other mental health concerns, etc.) will often lead to less functionality for the baby. This is called toxic stress. Their brains and bodies absorb what is happening around them and it all provides the blueprint for their development.
I am thrilled that I recently joined the early intervention side of my profession! I miss plenty about the 5-18, severe emotional and behavioral challenges demographic. But now I have the chance to see the same kids at age 0-3 when the chance for loading the right information is at its highest and need for getting rid of the clutter and faulty wiring in the brain is at its lowest. The Early Head Start model is integrative in a way that honors all that is necessary for learning to occur in babies and toddlers. Mental Health consultation is required as a part of the program and that is music to my ears! There is no better time to take care of mental health just like you would take care of physical health and cognitive development. They are all connected. Early Head Start programs understand that babies and toddlers whose mental health is sound have a greater chance for success in school, relationships and life!
If you are interested in learning more about infant and toddler mental health I suggest the following resources from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, Zero to Three, and Clayton Early Learning.
Karen Wolf is a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado and the Early Childhood Mental Health Liaison with Clayton Early Learning.