Research has shown that individuals suffering from mental health issues may have exhibited specific symptoms and signs as far back as infancy. In fact, there are currently specialists geared to help with infant mental health wellness from ages zero to three.
And while mental health issues can be difficult to diagnose in babies who can’t yet talk about their thoughts and feelings, infants are capable of feeling anxiety, stress and even depression. Many specific behaviors, environmental factors as well as family history can increase the risk of babies facing mental health challenges in the future. When a parent knows and understands that their baby is at high risk for developing mental illness, this is half the battle in helping them.
Ensuring they are healthy, having them assessed, and seeking out appropriate counselling and/or psychotherapy are the next steps. When it comes to dealing with mental illness, the earlier the intervention and treatment, the better the prognosis. Which is why it’s imperative for parents to be aware of possible warning signs and to follow through by seeking the advice of experts in the field.
While no one can predict the future, there are many things a parent can do in order to help give their baby the best possible start in life. And knowing what to look for in terms of mental illness signs and symptoms is one such way. Continue reading for 15 signs the baby may have mental health issues.
15 Attachment Issues
Building attachments or bonds to parents and other loved ones is a normal phase of babyhood. These attachments provide baby with a sense of security and help them to develop self-confidence as well as coping skills for the future. Attachments are formed when a baby is consistently soothed, comforted and cared for - when their needs are met and they feel safe, protected and loved.
Forming a healthy and strong attachment is the first step in an infant learning to love and trust others while also developing awareness for other people’s feelings and needs. It paves the road for creating and maintaining healthy relationships for the rest of their lives.
Attachments may be disrupted or not formed at all due to a baby being neglected or abused, moving from one caregiver to another, being separated from their parents or when a parent is emotionally distant (possibly due to depression or illness). Attachment issues can haunt a person into their adult lives, resulting in many mental health challenges.
Early symptoms of an attachment disorder are sometimes similar to a diagnosis of autism or ADHD and can include: the baby being difficult to comfort, appearing withdrawn, having an aversion to touch and not smiling or making eye contact.
14 Parents Are Abuse Survivors
The most essential thing an abuse survivor can do for their children is to seek help in dealing with their demons rather than attempting to bury them and move forward. Past abuse can have a devastating butterfly effect on a person’s life - even trickling down to negatively effect the lives of their children. Knowing these facts should be enough reason to seek counsel.
Abuse survivors often have lives characterized by crisis after crisis which affects their relationships, career and financial independence. In effect, they may be living in a constant state of internal (and even external) chaos hindering the ability to live a life of predictability, routine and consistency.
Since babies require consistency and routine in order to feel safe, build healthy attachments and basically thrive, this chaotic existence can have an extremely negative impact on them. Even leading to possible mental health issues later in life including depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders and possibly suicidal behavior.
13 Baby Is Inconsolable
Studies have shown that children suffering from behavioral disorders or mental illness typically exhibited precursors as an infant - possibly in the form of excessive crying and/or sleep issues. While an inconsolable baby may not be due to anything more serious than colic, sensitivity, over-stimulation, even boredom - it can also be a foreboding symptom. This is why it is important not to underestimate the significance of excessive crying, especially if a parent’s gut tells them that it’s something serious.
It’s important for parents to remain calm and un-frazzled while also staying nearby so their baby knows they are safe and loved. Because extreme and intense crying can be symptomatic of mental health challenges to come, a concerned parent should definitely consult with a healthcare professional for further advice.
If baby is suffering from something more serious than a bad case of colic, then treatment can get started as soon as possible. When it comes to dealing with possible mental health issues, the earlier treatment occurs (whether through counselling or even psychotherapy), the better for a baby’s future.
12 Limited Or No Eye Contact
Where a newborn is concerned, eye contact is an important milestone behavior. It nudges the bonding process along by establishing an emotional connection between infant and caregiver. It also happens to be one of the earliest forms of human communication and lays the foundation for developing long-lasting relationships with others.
If a baby does not make eye contact and appears to avoid it altogether, this can sometimes signify a larger problem. Lack of eye contact can be an early warning sign of autism or mental health issue such as anxiety, depression, even schizophrenia. Either way, it won’t hurt to have baby thoroughly assessed by a professional - even if it turns out to be nothing.
When it comes to possible mental health concerns, both infants and parents will benefit from early identification and intervention. Getting in to see specialists can be a long and exhausting process so it makes sense to get the ball rolling as soon as a possible problem presents itself.
11 Parents Suffer From Mental Illness
If a baby has a parent (or both) with mental illness (including postpartum depression), they are certainly at higher risk for developing similar issues themselves. This may be due to genetics or because of the instability and emotional upheaval that may occur during their infancy and childhood.
Fortunately, there are many things that can be done to help decrease a child’s risk factors such as:
- Not hiding a parent’s illness or pretending everything is fine. This is extremely crucial. The more a child is educated about a parent’s sickness, the less likely they will develop anxiety about it.
- Providing a stable environment and predictable routine for a baby/child. This may be easier said than done when one or both parents suffer from mental illness.
- Seeking out counselling or even psychotherapy. Talking to a professional can make a world of positive difference for both parents and children.
- Encouraging and nurturing the relationship between the child and affected parent. It is imperative for a child to feel loved by their parents, even if they are sick.
- Introducing a baby/child to healthy adult role models while also encouraging peer relationships outside the home. This will help a child develop a strong sense of self.
10 Baby Is Over-Responsive
Babies are built to automatically respond where their needs, natural instincts and reflexes are concerned. They are hungry so they cry; they get picked up and the crying stops; a person speaks and the baby looks at them.
The way and to what level a baby responds to other people, to external stimuli, even to their own requirements is extremely telling to professionals. Some babies are overly responsive - these infants may be referred to as intense, high maintenance, even demanding. For whatever reason, these babies aren’t as low-key as some others.
While these may just be passing sensitivities or even permanent personality traits, in some instances they can be signs of mental health challenges to come. Signs that a baby is overly responsive include:
- Urgent crying
- Constant and voracious feeding
- Extremely poor sleep habits
- Inability to self-soothe
- Constantly tensed muscles
- Forceful reactions when unhappy
For parents who recognize many of these character traits in their own baby, feel free to discuss concerns further with a healthcare provider.
9 Extreme Sleep Issues
Getting up throughout the night to feed, change and comfort a newborn is par for the course. Yet there’s a marked difference between an infant’s normal waking patterns for food and changing and suffering from an actual sleep disorder. According to studies, 20 to 40% of all babies and young children have sleep issues of some kind - though not necessarily clinical sleep disorders.
Sleep issues are inextricably linked to mental illness. In fact, Norwegian researchers have found that sleep disorders in babies can have consequences for the long-term and may even be symptomatic of future psychiatric problems. So do poor sleep habits lead to mental health issues or do mental health issues result in bad sleep? Researchers believe it goes both ways, contributing to an endless vicious cycle.
The most commonly diagnosed sleep disorder in babies and children is insomnia - where they have trouble falling asleep and once down, staying asleep. Other issues include: hypersomnia (wanting to sleep all the time) and parasomnia (nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking).
8 Parents Are Substance Abusers
While addiction and substance abuse are commonly found in individuals suffering from mental health problems, there is no direct correlation. It is believed that alcohol or drugs may be a way for a person to self-medicate their symptoms. But because substance abuse can cause side effects, it may worsen the symptoms it’s attempting to relieve in the first place. It can even trigger new symptoms to appear.
Drugs and alcohol do not mix well with prescribed medications and anti-depressants. They may weaken their intended results or even render them entirely ineffective. And if a person is at risk for mental illness in the first place, substance abuse can easily push them over the edge.
Babies and children of substance abusers are at higher risk of suffering from mental illness for a variety of reasons including:
- There’s family history to consider. Genetics play a key role in mental illness and substance abuse.
- The family environment may be chaotic, increasing the chances of having negative effects on children within the household.
- Parental substance abuse challenges can have permanent behavioral, emotional, cognitive and psychological consequences for kids involved.
7 Baby Does Not Interact
When a newborn first begins to interact with their parents or caregivers, they are beginning the process of learning socialization. Their first smile, giggle, coo, the first time they make eye contact - these behaviors are how babies form meaningful connections with others and begin to build relationships.
When a caregiver responds and reacts positively to these behaviors, a baby will continue to thrive by gaining confidence and security while learning to respond and adapt accordingly to the world around them.
Upon reaching their first birthday, if a baby does not appear interested in interacting with anyone (including their parents/primary caregivers), this is a major red flag. The same goes for a one-year-old baby only interested in interaction with their parents (or primary caregivers) and no one else - even when encouraged.
This lack of interaction may be explained by feelings of fear and stress. But it may also be indicative of autism or mental health challenges to come. Either way, it is definitely recommended to meet with a healthcare professional in order to discuss the issue further.
6 Exposure To Violent Conflict
When a baby experiences violent conflict and abuse (even indirectly), this can negatively impact crucial stages of brain development. Feelings of insecurity, fear and stress can damage the hippocampus, disrupting the normal process of brain development. This damage can lead to increased risks of suffering from depression, addiction and even PTSD in the future.
Parents need to be aware that their negative actions and behavior - even when not directed at their children, can still cause as much damage as if they were. Babies and children crave and require routine and consistency in their lives. If their household is chaotic and distressing to them, this can damage them for life.
Research has proven that experiencing high levels of stress at a young age, affects a person’s ability to cope with (even normal levels of) stress in the future. Basically, undergoing stress early on will weaken a person’s ability to handle it in later life.
5 Dislikes Being Held
According to psychologists, most babies crave close physical contact. Warm cuddles and hugs help them feel safe, secure and loved and are the beginning of forging connections and long-lasting relationships to other people. That said, many normal infants feel the exact opposite. This close contact can feel constrictive and stifling to them - leaving them feeling stressed and anxious.
For parents of babies who don’t seem to appreciate physical contact, it’s important to remain affectionate while trying other ways to connect. These babies may prefer eye contact or listening to a voice talking or singing to them over physical closeness. They may even appreciate a loving touch or caress - although without being held prisoner in a parent’s restrictive embrace.
That said, there can also be medical causes at the root of this hands-off behavior. For that reason, it’s important for parents to bring baby in for a check-up to rule out any health concerns. Not wanting to be touched or held can sometimes be an early symptom of autism, developmental disorders and/or mental health issues.
4 Parents Lack Support
Understanding mental health is key to prevention as well as early treatment. When parents are part of a larger network, they are better able to focus on their babies’ needs and all-around well-being. For new parents who feel alone and isolated, overwhelmed by their responsibility and as if the weight of the world is on their shoulders, it is more difficult to be a good parent.
Family support can actually decrease a new mom’s levels of stress hormone which dramatically lowers the chance of experiencing postpartum depression. When new parents have family, friends and healthcare professionals to turn to for advice, guidance and help when required, it is easier to keep on top of any parenting issues that may arise. They will be less likely to miss any signs or symptoms that a baby is struggling. And getting help and intervention early on during crucial infant stages is important to keeping both baby and parents healthy.
3 Extremely Picky Eater
A recent study suggests that babies considered picky eaters may be in danger of developing a number of psychiatric problems including anxiety, depression and ADHD. In order to decrease this risk, healthcare professionals are advised to offer specific guidance to parents of babies who even exhibit mild levels of selective eating.
A parent should trust their instincts on this one - if something doesn’t feel right, don’t dismiss a picky eater as spoiled or hope it’s a passing stage. Signs that this pickiness is indicative of a larger issue include:
- Baby had trouble nursing and bottle-feeding from the get-go.
- Baby gags easily and often.
- Baby seems extremely sensitive to smells.
- Mealtime has always been a battle.
- Baby has trouble chewing and/or is 18 months old and still eating pureed food.
It's important for parents to keep their cool and not be forceful or threatening where food is involved. This can create a vicious cycle of stress and anxiety that will most likely not solve the issue. If food is a struggle, parents should get baby checked out for possible underlying health concerns, allergies and sensory issues. Then work with a professional to help ease anxiety (baby’s and parents’) involving food.
2 Skill Disintegration
A worrisome sign of challenges to come can be when a baby experiences skill regression or disintegration. A baby seems to be thriving normally and reaching important milestones and then suddenly begins to lose language, social and motor skills. These losses can be gradual or rapid and may cause anxiety and frustration in the baby which can result in behavioral changes too.
Keep in mind that when baby begins to learn new skills, it may seem like they are forgetting previously learned ones. But they may just not be focussing on them because they are busy honing in on new areas of learning.
Yet skill disintegration can be symptomatic of autism or of Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) which resembles autism. This particular disorder is rare and thought to be associated with seizures and other medical issues concerning the brain. But definitive answers are still somewhat shrouded in mystery.
Another reason behind skill regression may be if a baby has experienced a sudden and extreme stress, trauma or major life disruption.
1 Baby Is Under-Responsive
An under-responsive baby may be cause for some worry. Hyposensitive to sensory input, they may have trouble noticing touch, temperature extremes and may not be as aware when they are wet or dirty. These babies won’t necessarily fuss when they are tired, hungry or need changing. They may seem floppy, low-energy, even lost in their own world.
If baby is presenting as under-responsive, it’s important to have them assessed by a professional. Most likely a physical exam will be conducted followed by an interview of their primary caregivers to find out more about family background, medical history and milestone development. Unfortunately there are no specific tests that can be performed for a definitive diagnosis - this can only be reached by a combination of observation, interviews and presenting symptoms.
Under-responsiveness can be a symptom of a Sensory Processing Disorder. It can also be indicative of Reactive Attachment Disorder where a baby either didn’t form bonds or the bond formation was interrupted at a crucial point in time.