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Guest column

Even babies can need mental health care

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We tend to think of babies as lovable, cute little beings who need careful handling, clean diapers, lots of sleep and good nutrition. Less common is considering a little one’s emotional health and the important role it plays in their overall development. Children as young as infants and up to 8 years of age, and their families, might require early childhood mental health services for a number of reasons. These include behavioral issues, difficulty adjusting to child care or preschool, parents’ divorce, new siblings, losses of loved ones, adoption or trauma.

Children progress through a series of predictable developmental milestones, although not all children do so at the same rate. A child’s doctor will monitor growth and learning stages to determine where a child fits on this spectrum. However, disruptions and stress in the home, or conflicts between parents and caregivers or other children, can have a significant impact on very small children — they just may not be able to verbalize it.

Some ways that a young child might act out include disturbances in sleep, changes in eating patterns or behavioral issues that are significant, such as biting, kicking or uncontrollable tantrums that don’t go away with normal parenting strategies. Seeking mental health treatment can help the child and family learn to cope with difficult times and build resiliency for the future.

Early childhood mental health care might become necessary as a result of traumatic events such as car accidents, witnessing violence or experiences of abuse and neglect. These are called adverse childhood experiences, and some of the most useful data came from the large-scale Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study concluded that if these types of traumas are not addressed in children, even very young children, they can lead to greater risk for mental and physical health problems as a child ages, and on through adulthood.

Therapy with young children should always involve caregivers — parents, guardians, foster and adoptive adults — although it may also include some time in which the child (especially those age 3 and older) meets individually with the therapist. Family therapy, play therapy and parent-child interactional therapy are some of the approaches used with young children. A mental health professional can help determine what is developmentally appropriate for the child and suited to the needs of the family.

Early childhood mental health care for families and small children pays dividends for the future. It is just one of many dimensions necessary to raise healthy babies and communities.

Kelly Stout, LCSW, specializes in early childhood mental health at Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network in Parker.

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