Myth Busting- Babies and Depression

May 3, 2011 · 18 comments

in Development

Baby sad.

Today is  National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day , so I thought it might be appropriate to do some myth busting around babies and mental health issues:

Myth: Infants and Toddlers aren’t at risk for developing mental health problems such as depression.

Fact: In February of this year,  the American Psychological Association published research indicating that infants and toddlers can suffer serious mental health disorders, such as depression, yet they are unlikely to receive treatment that could prevent lasting problems.

Myth: Young children are naturally resilient, and usually grow out of behavioral problems and emotional difficulties.

Fact: According to Joy D. Osofsky, PhD, of Louisiana State University, and Alicia F. Lieberman, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, “Mental health risks to infants are magnified by the fact that “the youngest children, from birth to age 5, suffer disproportionately high rates of maltreatment with long-term consequences for mental and physical health, but pediatric health, and child care providers seldom identify or refer children under 5 years old to mental health services.”

Myth: Infants cannot have mental health problems “because they lack a mental life.”

Fact: Even young infants can react to the meaning of others’ intentions and emotions because they have their own rudimentary intentions and motivating emotions, according to an article by Ed Tronick, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, Boston,  and Marjorie Beeghly, PhD, of Wayne State University.

Myth: Trauma is the main cause of mental illness in babies and toddlers.

Fact: The everyday life and ongoing interactions between infants and parents or other caregivers, has a huge impact on the development of mental health issues in babies because,  “Infants make meaning about themselves and their relation to the world of people and things, and when that “meaning-making” goes wrong, it can lead to development of mental health problems. Some infants may come to make meaning of themselves as helpless and hopeless, and may become apathetic, depressed and withdrawn. Others seem to feel threatened by the world and may become hyper-vigilant and anxious. Apparent sadness, anger, withdrawal and disengagement can occur “when infants have difficulty gaining meaning in the context of relationships.” (Tronick and Beeghly)

In recent years, there has been a huge focus on understanding and optimizing the development of children, but often the emphasis is on developing their cognitive (thinking or reasoning) skills. While strong cognitive abilities are necessary for academic success, there is a growing awareness of how crucial it is for young children to develop social–emotional competence in order for them to thrive in school and in life.

Awareness and education are the keys to making a positive difference in the lives of all young children. It is imperative that both parents and caregivers be aware of the need, and learn strategies for fostering the nurturing adult–child relationships that lead to social competence, mental health, and resilience in young children.

Magda Gerber’s approach to child care nurtures the development of resilient, emotionally healthy babies, and their ability to develop social competence through mutual respect, trust, and acceptance. It is “like preventative medicine, and it’s therapeutic for both parent and child.”

This year, the 22 Annual RIE Infant/Toddler Conference to be held on Saturday, May 14, 2011, in Los Angeles, will feature a keynote address by Alicia F. Lieberman PhD, entitled “Helping Young Children Cope with Stress and Trauma.”

For further information and  reading about National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day , please see Amy Webb’s post over at The Thoughtful Parent.

The best gift







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Tara McClintick May 3, 2011

I bet that was so hard for that mother in the video to do that! The importance of the interactive quality between caregiver/child doesn’t surprise me at all – the video definitely illustrates how strongly these experiences can impact children emotionally. When you have a child, as I do, who finds it extremely challenging to engage (my youngest was diagnosed on the severe end of the autism spectrum), you find out how crucial the topic of your post here is – it’s so important!!! I thank God I found the Son-Rise program that helped me to learn how to be happy with my son “as is” and interactive with at whatever level he is able to on any given day. Love, respect, and mutual enjoyment are so important for all children to experience. Thanks for this fascinating post 🙂

Miven Trageser May 3, 2011

What a wonderful post on a much-needed topic. Sorry I missed it when you first posted. I find that video very difficult to watch, and recently saw it at a training on using body-centered play therapy to treat trauma in kids. Not attuning to a baby who wants contact is very painful to witness. Unfortunately, children of depressed, withdrawn or otherwise unavailable parents do have some version of this experience chronically.
What really stands out for me is that I wish the parent would narrate for the baby what just happened. That would validate what I think is the baby’s perspective: that something occurred, that it was difficult, it happened and now it’s over. Mommy’s back. That’s the repair work of everyday life, and it makes all the difference in forming a secure attachment. I believe this mom and baby have a secure attachment, but I just wish she had helped the baby recover from the experiment with some more language.

Jonathan Mugan May 5, 2011

That’s an amazing video. It illustrates how much mental development is dependent upon the “dance” between the child and caregiver.

janetlansbury May 5, 2011

Great post, Lisa! So important to share this information and these myths that both over and underestimate babies.

I also wholeheartedly agree with Miven about wishing the mom had explained, said SOMETHING so that the baby could grasp a bit of meaning in that weird experience. How frightening to have your mom suddenly go cold like that! And yet, I’m sure this does happen when parents are depressed or even just distracted.

We can repair all these situations if we can just remember to talk to the baby!

Angelique May 27, 2011

yes, what a great post Lisa! So important to share this kind of information. Children find their security in the persons around them. Very touching the video, I will share it also on my wall.

Lisa May 29, 2011

Angelique, Thanks so much for reading, and for sharing!

diane May 19, 2011

having done fostercare with infants and toddlers, I have observed much trauma in the newborn child as well as the nonverbal toddler. healing the medically insulted child who has lived thru cancer and long hospital stays is much the same as healing the prenatally exposed newborn. the RIE philosophy and techniques are my best tools for bringing our humans back into “equilibrium” with their primary caregiver and their environment.

It is most hard to see a baby come from trauma and become more stable, be returned to trauma (I support reunification whole heartedly) only to be placed back in my care to start healing the trauma again. Multiple placements are very hard on babies and their emotional growth. What saves me is knowing that a human who learns to bond will bond again if given the chance and guidance. Mess with this process too much and sure attachment disorders start to develop…yet I have seen even the most emotionally stressed infant learn to recover, trust and come back to equilibrium….I wish RIE techniques were taught to all foster parents and that the county would not place more than one infant at a time with a “resource family”~new word for foster family.

Each baby needs to be held for every feeding and have a present adult to notice chance and modify themselves as the child heals…not always the case when one family has 2 infants, toddlers and preschoolers because they have the bed space.

Here’s to healing our most fragile infants~

Lisa May 29, 2011

Diane, “…..yet I have seen even the most emotionally stressed infant learn to recover, trust and come back to equilibrium…” I have also witnessed this.The human mind and spirit is so strong, so resilient, and so responsive to the respectful approach Magda Gerber taught. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience here. Thank you for the work you do, and for speaking up on behalf of vulnerable babies who can’t speak for themselves. Yes, here’s to healing our most fragile infants and their families.

Kate from An Amazing Child May 27, 2011

That clip was really heart wrenching to watch. To see the little baby go from being so happy and alive to not understanding why her mother has changed and then trying everything in her power to get her back again.

It really does affirm the social intelligence of infants and small toddlers.

Thank you for sharing this. It came to me at the right time. I needed to see this today.

Lisa May 29, 2011

Kate, Thank you for reading, and for your kind words. It is wonderful to know that something I wrote was helpful to you. I write and share information in the hopes of making a little bit of a positive difference in the lives of babies and their families. As you noted, the clip is difficult to watch, but it vividly demonstrates the deep awareness of young children, which is why I chose to include it. It is important to note that it’s not possible for parents to be perfectly responsive or in synch with their babies at all times. What is important is that when a break has occurred in communication and responsiveness, it needs to be acknowledged and repaired by the adult, as Miven so beautifully articulated in her comment above.

Carolyn Hastie May 29, 2011

Lisa, you said “it’s not possible for parents to be perfectly responsive or in synch with their babies at all times. What is important is that when a break has occurred in communication and responsiveness, it needs to be acknowledged and repaired by the adult”

That comment is so true and at the heart of everything… so many parents bend themselves sideways trying to be everything to their children and feel terrible when that link is ‘broken’ for whatever reason. The reality is communication breaks down and it is what we do to repair that breakdown that really matters – those breakdowns and repairs are part of the learning process. Those events help babies/children learn resilience and coping skills.

Thanks so much for your wonderful blog; so helpful for parents and practitioners alike

bonnie November 14, 2012

this was very interesting to watch . iv been depressed (believe it or not) since i was 2 – 3 weeks old, it was my second earliest memory . iv tried to find more articles about babies with depression but with very little luck . i guess so called experts out there still think its impossible for babies not to affected by depression .

Lisa November 15, 2012


I do believe you. Luckily, there is a growing awareness among both experts and lay people about the needs of babies, and the implications and possible difficulties when something goes awry in the parent/caregiver/child relationship early on. Awareness and intervention can make a world of difference for babies and families, and can influence outcomes in a positive way. Thanks for reading.

danielle October 22, 2015

Undortunately, I can’t see the video. is it possible to send me a link please? I would really like to see it. thanks.

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