Your baby and toddler’s mental health - Happity Blog
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Your baby and toddler’s mental health

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Last week the amazing Dr Zara Rahemtulla kicked off our first Happity Expert Chat by talking about helping to maintain your baby or toddler’s mental health.

She has kindly written a summary of her talk, which you can find below, or you can watch it back it in our Facebook group where you will also be able to join different experts talking (and taking Q&As in Zoom) about supporting you and your family each Wednesday at 8pm.

How has the pandemic had an impact and what can parents do to help?

Over these past 10 months, there have been some good conversations about how this pandemic is affecting our mental health. It’s no secret that adults everywhere are struggling and need support at the moment.

However, a big part of this conversation about mental health is missing. There is very little conversation about how the current pandemic is affecting our babies and children. Parents are certainly seeing changes in their children’s behaviours and there are real reasons for this.

Below I will briefly discuss the impact that the pandemic has had on babies and toddlers, and then I will go on to talk about the ways you can support your children at the moment.

What has been the impact on babies and toddlers?

As a professional working with babies and toddlers, the main issue we are seeing at the moment is that children are showing more tricky behaviours. Children are trying to manage so much change at the moment too. The multitude of changes in routine do have an effect on them; maybe they’re not going to nursery, or going to nursery less, they’re not seeing their friends at the playground, they’re not seeing grandparents/extended family, they’re not going out to the play places they were going to previously and their parents are trying to work from home and look after them. At different points during this pandemic, babies and toddlers may have felt confused, upset, worried and happy all at the same time.

Due to having no language or less sophisticated language, babies and toddlers are going to be unable to use words to tell their parents what they are fully thinking and feeling. Some common behaviour difficulties that parents are reporting at the moment are that their child is crying more frequently for no reason, child is having sleep difficulties all of a sudden (e.g. problems going to sleep, staying asleep, having nightmares), they are more clingy than before, they may be more whiny and certainly there are more meltdowns and temper tantrums.

I hope it comes across here that these changes are very normal and expected in the current situation, and they are all examples of how the current changes are having an impact on them.

Ways you can help your child

There are lots of ways you can help your child at this time. How much you can do for your child will of course depend on your well-being – it is completely normal for you to feel up and down at the moment too! Some days will feel harder than others, so do whatever you feel you can. Below are some suggestions that hopefully help with a range of ages:

  1. Watch, listen and observe their play. It may sound strange, but play is such an important source of knowledge. It can give us huge insight into what may be going through a toddler’s mind! Toddlers will often ‘act out’ various scenarios as a way of trying to communicate the things they are worried about. For example, you might have noticed your toddler playing ‘doctors’ or ‘hospitals’ more, or pretending animals or dolls are sick, as a way of processing what they are hearing in the media. You might have noticed they want to involve you in their play more (or they are playing less independently). They may start pretending to be a cat or a dog that needs taking care of and needs extra comfort. The main message here is, whatever your child has started to do with their play, follow their lead and go with it. It is their way of communicating to you that they may need extra reassurance at the moment. Don’t dismiss their play or tell them they’re being silly, take notice and comment on what you see them doing.
  • Think about your child’s big feelings and what they might be trying to communicate. Babies and children will have big feelings right now – they may feel happy about having more time with you and unhappy about other changes. The best way to help your child with their big feelings is to try and understand them. You don’t need to always get it right! Young children feel helped when their parents try and understand their feelings. You are the best person to soothe and reassure your baby or toddler. You might try and name something for them, “you’re feeling frustrated because we’ve been inside all day and we can’t go out to the park”, or “you’re really missing your grannie and the stories she used to read you”.

Older child focussed advice:

  • Welcome questions. A slightly older toddler (age 3+) may be able to ask you questions about what is going on. They may ask questions that seem quite irrelevant (e.g. will my favourite café be open?), but these are important questions in a child’s world. Take their questions seriously and don’t dismiss them!
  • Give fact-based information in your answers. Be factual, but of course age appropriate with your answers. I must stress that it is okay to not know the answers to everything. In a pandemic where everything is uncertain, you can absolutely say “I don’t know” when you don’t know the answer. Saying something like, “I don’t know, but as soon as I know more I promise I will let you know” is perfect. Your goal here is to help your child to feel heard and understood and for them to feel like you are available to them if they need to ask you something.
  • Give reassurance. Be reassuring to your child if they are worrying about things they are hearing on the news. For example, you could reassure them that very few children are getting sick, and that they’re unlikely to catch it. Another way to reassure a child is to help them feel involved in a process – children feel less worried when they know what to do to keep themselves safe. For example, reminding kids that washing their hands is actually helping everyone by stopping the spread of the virus. 

Dr Zara Rahemtulla, Clinical Psychologist

If you would like more support with understanding your child’s behaviours, please get in touch with Gentle Journeys. They can help parents with how to respond to tricky child behaviour, with general parenting strategies and they support parents with their mental health and well-being. You can follow them on Instagram, and their website is www.gentlejourneys.org

To watch Dr Zara’s talk back, or to join other experts live each Wedneday at 8pm please head to the Happity Facebook group.

Mum of one, co-founder of Happity, mental health advocate

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