“How you are is as important as what you do.”Jeree H. Pawl, Ph.D., Infant Mental Health expert
Conversations about mental, social, and emotional health are happening more than ever before. This is a major win! Still, many of us are not aware that even our littlest ones have specialized needs in these areas. This includes DHH infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) focuses on the earliest relationships a little one forms with parents, caregivers, family members, and others in their world. It also includes a growing baby’s earliest environments. These first connections impact every area of your child’s development: language, cognition (thinking), social-emotional, and even motor skills (movement).
Pre-Birth to 5: The Most Important Years
Our earliest relationships and environments matter more than we have ever realized. This is because the first years of a child’s life are the most important ones they will ever have. From the moment your baby is conceived until around the age of five–essentially, the first 2,000 days of your child’s life–that powerful little brain is growing and making more than a million connections per second!
Additionally, little ones’ brains have what are called “critical windows of development.” These are sensitive time periods during which specific areas of the brain are naturally “turned on” for the best learning. These windows are open for a time, then they begin to close as the child ages. Caregivers have a golden opportunity to pour in meaningful language, to be present in consistent and sensitive ways, and to offer experiences that send the messages, “You are safe. You belong. You are treasured.”
A little one who receives these messages is one who grows into a healthier, more confident, more connected teen and adult. This foundation is a gift that truly lasts a lifetime.
Simple ways you can offer your baby a healthy beginning include:
- Take every opportunity to make eye contact with your child as you go about your daily routines. Nothing says, “I love you!” like intentional shared glances. Eye contact is the start of “serve and return” interaction, the back-and-forth communication rhythm that sets the stage for language learning. It is also the bricks and mortar that build the foundation for earliest relationships.
- Use touch strategically. Touch is powerful in its ability to soothe, reassure, and connect us with baby. It sends a message of safety to brains of all ages…which means it’s as nurturing to the adult as it is to the child! A brain that feels safe is a brain that can learn and grow. So snuggle up!
- Narrate your little one’s experiences and feelings throughout each day. Adding language to routines helps a child know what is happening to and around them. This gives them a sense of predictability. Predictability helps them feel in control (and don’t we all love to feel in control?!). Adding feeling words during daily experiences teaches them to pay attention to how their brains and bodies respond to their world. Over time, they will begin to use these feelings words to express their discoveries, emotions, ideas, and desires to you.
- Use simple statements frequently, then expand these as your little one develops. These narrations are used at meal times, during diaper changes, when playing with a toy on the living room floor, or at any time throughout your day. Children make meaning when language is connected to what their senses are taking in. Try, “You feel happy when we blow bubbles!” and, “Oh my! That barking dog startled you.” Or try, “It’s time to change your diaper. Oooh–it feels cold when I take off your diaper!”
When nurturers consistently provide responsive care, attuned connection, and a safe environment as early as possible, we set a strong foundation for healthy whole-child development both now and for the rest of a child’s life. How we are–and how our little ones are–matters tremendously!