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Does the mental health of parents and caregivers impact early childhood development?

The biological and psychological ties that unite parents and their children have a profound impact on the physical and emotional growth of children, particularly during the early years of a child’s life. Reaching developmental and emotional milestones, picking up positive social skills, and learning how to deal with issues in the family system are all aspects of growing up. The mental and emotional health of a child is greatly affected by the quality of caregiving and the relationship that caregivers – be it a parent, grandparent, or another adult – build with young children. And for this, the mental wellbeing of the caregiver is vital. Parents and caregivers should also prioritise and care for their mental health for their own wellbeing, without harbouring feelings of guilt.

Why is early childhood development important?

Early childhood, which is the time from when a baby is conceived to when he/she becomes five years of age, is a period of critical physical, emotional, and cognitive development in a child’s life. Research has consistently shown that the early years, which includes the crucial First 1000 Days, is important for brain development, for which caregivers need to ensure that infants and toddlers receive proper nutrition, ample opportunities for play, and nurturing care. Early experiences have a lasting impact on a young child and shape who they grow up to be as individuals, which can lead to better health and increased earning potential in adulthood.
It is during this time that children learn to recognise themselves while developing basic social skills and connections. Parents and caregivers are the first support in a child’s journey of becoming emotionally independent, and this period is a critical time for the primary caregivers to help children achieve their developmental milestones, learn life skills, and become familiar with external surroundings.

Can babies sense parental distress?

Young children are highly perceptive to the emotional state of their caregivers. Over a million new neural connections are formed per second, thus impacting the baby’s physical, intellectual, and emotional health and well-being, and making them receptive to even minute changes in a person’s behaviour, regardless of their ability to understand or remember.
Children, especially newborns, are inherently sensitive to their caregivers’ emotional state and can sense distress. They show increased heart rate, breathing rate, blood flow to the muscles, cortisol levels, and reduced oxytocin levels.
Parental distress may stem from numerous causes ranging from social isolation and economic hardship to divorce or acute mental illness. If you are experiencing any recurring symptoms such as stress, frustration, anger, or sadness, make sure that you put your needs first – talk to someone, eat and sleep right, or find whatever works for you. Research says that around 22% of new mothers go through some form of post-partum depression. That means, one in five mothers is unable to provide ideal nurturing care to their newborn. Post Covid-19, this number is likely to have risen, and it has become necessary to give early childhood development paramount importance.
Studies show that children coming from troubled homes are three times more likely to develop mental disorders later in life. Only 11% children come from intact, happy families. This is an eye-opening statistic, considering that 89% children come from either broken or unhappy homes where they are exposed to situations that might cause them trauma. Growing up in such environments during the early years can leave lasting impacts on children like:
– Emotional or physical neglect
– Physical or emotional abuse
– Poor nutrition
– Exposure to drugs, alcohol or other harmful substances
– Stumped social, emotional and cognitive development
– Children imitating parents’ coping mechanisms
– Depression, anxiety and panic attacks when faced by triggers
– Social isolation, academic and economic hardship

What can caregivers do to ensure their own mental wellbeing?

Fortunately, such scenarios can be avoided when parents and caregivers of young children take care of their own mental health. A few simple ways to do so and thus be able to better support children include:
– Breastfeeding, co-sleeping and ample kangaroo care as these are proven methods to relieve stress in both babies and mothers and make a baby feel safe and secure.
– Establishing routines like naptime, meals, play time, etc. with your infant or toddler and sticking to it.
– Managing stress through exercise, hobbies, or journaling. This can help new parents have a sense of normalcy by raising endorphin and serotonin levels, thus reducing the stress and anxiety that comes with a new baby.
– Being in touch with family and friends, being surrounded by love and affection to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Remember to not be hesitant about asking for help whenever needed.
– Avoiding disciplining the child when stressed – there is a chance of the parent losing their temper at the child due to their own stress, in turn causing distress to the child.
– Many women experience subtle changes in mood during pregnancy. If any of these changes in mood or symptoms are persistent or interfere with a woman’s usual activities, they should be reported to their health care provider since this might be an indication of a bigger problem.
Mothers, fathers, and caregivers of infants and toddlers need to focus on adopting a mental health care regime that works for them. The ability of parents and caregivers to provide responsive and nurturing care to babies and young children is shaped directly by their own experiences and mental health. For this reason, early childhood development programmes and parenting interventions should emphasise on not just the wellbeing of children, but the caregivers themselves.
Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.
Rushda MajeedRushda is responsible for Bernard van Leer Foundation’s work in India. Previously, she helped manage Bloomberg Philanthropies’ India Smart Cities Challenge, a competition to select 100 cities for central government funding as part of the country’s Smart Cities Mission. Rushda has led research in 11 countries for Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies to analyse reforms that improve government performance and accountability. She has also served as a core team member on the re-election campaign of a two-term Member of Parliament, advised a World Bank team on case study research, and managed a global leadership programme for a New York-city based non-profit.
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