Infants and Toddlers Have Mental Health Problems, Too


If your infant or toddler were suffering with depression or other mental health problems, how would you know it and could you get help? According to new research published in American Psychologist, infants, toddlers and young children up to age five years can suffer significant mental health problems, but they are unlikely to get the help they need.

Are mental health problems in infants common?

The idea that infants and toddlers can suffer from depression and other mental health conditions is not a new one. In a story from Good Morning America in 2006, Dr. Jess Shatkin, director of education and training at New York University’s Child Study Center, noted, for example, that depression in babies is “not a terribly common phenomenon. We think maybe one in 40 or so—but it can certainly happen.”

That does not mean, however, that mental health issues in very young children are not a serious matter. In one of the new articles, which was authored by Joy D. Osofsky, PhD, of Louisiana State University, and Alicia F. Lieberman, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, the investigators point out that one reason young children do not get proper mental health care is “the pervasive, but mistaken, impression that young children do not develop mental health problems” and that they will eventually “grow out” of any emotional and behavioral challenges they face.

Authors Ed Tronick, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, and Marjorie Beeghly, PhD, of Wayne State University, pointed out in their analysis that although trauma can have a significant impact on a young child’s mental health, they believe experts need to study the effects of daily life and interactions between infants and their parents and other caregivers.


The authors stressed that infants take in all the stimuli around them and “make meaning about themselves and their relation to the world of people and things.” When this process of making sense about the world goes wrong, the results can be mental health problems, including feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, depression, and anxiety.

Finding appropriate professional help for infants and toddlers who have mental health issues can be a difficult task for parents because there are very few practitioners in the field of early childhood mental health. As another article in the same issue of American Psychologist pointed out, there are also limitations associated with the current approaches to the diagnostic classification of mental health problems in young children.

Given that children from birth to age 5 years are the recipients of a disproportionately high rate of neglect, abuse, and other mistreatment, as noted by Osofsky and Lieberman, this population does not often get referred to mental health services. The authors also noted that previous studies have indicated that 20 percent of children who live in poverty have a diagnosable mental health condition.

There are places parents and other caregivers can turn to for help with mental health issues in early childhood, including children’s hospitals, some of which have early childhood mental health programs; their state’s family health services department (or similar programs; these vary by state); and universities or other educational facilities that have early childhood education and/or mental health curricula.

Mental health issues among infants, toddlers, and children up to age 5 years are an area of concern among health professionals. The authors of new research urge an expansion of early screening for mental health problems in infants, toddlers, and young children, more training of professionals in the field, integration of infant mental health consultations into programs for parents and other caregivers, and recognition of the need for insurance to cover prevention and treatment of mental health problems in early childhood.

Good Morning America, Nov. 9, 2006
Osofsky JD, Lieberman AF. American Psychologist 2011 Feb-Mar; 66(2): 120-28
Tronick E, Beeghly M. American Psychologist 2011 Feb-Mar; 66(2): 107-19