Why caring for a baby’s mental health can’t wait

When it comes to caring for the mental health of babies and young children, wait and see just isn’t a good strategy.

Child psychologist Dr. Terrie Rose talks with caregivers, educators and health care providers about the value of mental health care for the youngest of children.
Child psychologist Dr. Terrie Rose talks with caregivers, educators and health care providers about the value of mental health care for the youngest of children.

That was the message from Dr. Terrie Rose, child psychologist and keynote speaker at the “Bridges to Mental Wellness: Helping Children Thrive From Birth to Five” event April 17 at the Schwan’s Center in Blaine, hosted by Anoka County Public Health.

A self-professed baby nerd, Rose spoke to teachers, public health nurses and therapists on why caring for mental health of infants and toddlers is critical to development.

Along with a resource fair, providers also attended sessions on providing wellness for immigrant children and families, when to refer children for early childhood mental health help and how to talk with families about sensitive issues.

Bridges to Mental Wellness also included an evening community event with a parent panel discussing the importance of social and emotional development.

Rose stressed that strong, healthy relationships between babies and their caregivers are the foundation to mental health.

“We need to pay attention to relationships,” said Rose on the successful strategies of raising babies that are both physically and mentally well.

“If we pay attention to who surrounds that baby, that baby’s development is going to go forward typically without a lot of extra fuss.”

Along with forming relationships, Rose said healthy babies should also be developing to regulate their emotions and learning through discovery.

“This is what we want for every child to be solid – these are the things we want every family member to be paying attention to,” she said.

And each of those key three developmental steps look different for a 12- month-old, a 15-month-old and a 36-month-old.

Rose, a Twin Cities native, is a nationally-known licensed child psychologist. In 1999 she established Baby’s Space, a childcare model serving young children in poverty.

She is also a national trainer for the diagnosis of mental illness in children under the age of five.

Rose is battling the norms where it is easy to see a course of treatment for physical ailments, but when it comes to the mental health of very young children, it’s not so simple.

There is also the challenge of the stigmas that surround mental illness – the misconception that it means someone is dangerous and must be kept away, said Rose.

“Imagine if that someone else is your four-year-old,” she said.

She described how babies’ mental health can be affected by parents’ inability to manage their stress, exposure to persistent toxic stress, maltreatment or trauma.

She said an unexpected event can have a direct impact on a child’s development.

“The newest research shows trauma in the first two years of life is chaining the child’s long-term cognitive abilities,” said Rose.

But with early intervention and strategies for families provided by mental health professionals, that trajectory can change.

“We need to change the access point by making it easier for families to get the treatment they need,” said Rose.

She said a positive step in that direction is the new “Zero to Three” screening assessment tanned diagnostic manual put out by the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families that looks at development and the way small children might express mental health problems.

“We have to be detectives,” Rose challenged the care providers in attendance.

She cautioned them to be on the lookout for what care centers might describe a dream baby – the quiet child who never makes a fuss about anything.

This can be a coping mechanism for a child suffering from maltreatment.

“Shutting down is a really good survival strategy but it is a really terrible developmental strategy,” said Rose.

“We have these babies in child care centers and homes all over our state.”

And parents need to be empowered to ask questions and find resources to support their own children’s mental health.

“We have to do this work because health is more than growth charts,” said Rose.

For more information on behavior, development and mental health for infants and toddlers, visit zerotothree.org.

Mandy Moran Froemming is at
[email protected]