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The first 36 months of a child's life are critical to growing up emotionally healthy

A generation or two ago, children started school at age 5, when we sent them off to kindergarten.

Then we realized that many children do better when they start learning earlier, in pre-kindergarten programs.

Now we're discovering that this is too late, and that preparing a child for school — and life — absolutely must begin even earlier.

I'm not talking about teaching toddlers to read, or to count in French. As it turns out, most critical for children's early readiness to learn are the emotional capacities all children need to be happy and well-adjusted: trust, empathy, compassion, curiosity, self-direction and persistence. All these should be developed during the child's first 36 months of life.

Major new advances in our understanding of infant and toddler development are a centerpiece of October's "Healthy Parents, Healthy Babies" month, a public awareness campaign initiated by the Early Child Mental Health Committee of Pinellas and Pasco Counties. The goal: to help all parents and caregivers learn about infant mental health, and its critical role in children's subsequent development.

We know emotionally healthy children when we see them. These are the babies who grow into children who can communicate their feelings and experiences with family, caregivers and playmates. And they feel safe, confident and valued as they do so.

But the road to developing these capacities is not always an easy one. Nearly all babies experience normal developmental challenges — separation and stranger anxiety, occasional meltdowns while struggling to manage emotions, negotiate with other babies and toilet train. But for some babies, problems experienced during the infant and toddler years can blossom into more serious concerns.

The reasons are many; babies who are premature, underweight, fretful or easily overwhelmed often have trouble letting their parents know what they need. Many babies are colicky and cry all the time. Others show signs of being disinterested in people or unable to show pleasure — babies, it turns out, can be depressed.

Faced with a listless, depressed, colicky or difficult to calm baby, even the best-informed parents often need guidance and support.

And the challenges babies can present are all the more difficult for a great many new parents in our high-stress culture who themselves feel depressed, isolated, fatigued, financially distressed or overwhelmed.

In such circumstances, many parents have a doubly hard time connecting with their babies. They might not recognize the baby's subtle overtures for care, or may not laugh, talk and play games as much as every baby needs (see sidebar).

When stressors mount, the child's development often does not progress as expected. Over time, stress levels for babies and parents continue to escalate, and real problems can follow.

Most people have heard about cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone'' that is released in our brain and body in response to stress.

New research has confirmed that similar chemical reactions take place in the tiny brains and bodies of babies and toddlers.

In the short run, cortisol helps the body cope with a crisis. But over a longer period, when stressors keep happening, the repeated chemical assaults can change the wiring of parts of the brain that are important for concentration, attention, learning and regulating emotions. In extreme circumstances, chronic stress has a profound effect on babies' abilities to cope and adapt.

All the more reason that it is never too early for parents who suspect a problem to seek help.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties offer an array of excellent and easily accessible services. Adults who notice potential signs of trouble in their babies or toddlers (see sidebar) can get low cost or even free help. Support for parents also is available.

The sooner parents seek help, the more likely their child will be preschool-ready when the time comes.

James McHale is professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology and director of the Family Study Center at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Support Healthy Development

• Greet your child after every absence.

• Modify your tone of voice to encourage a sense of calm in your child.

• Learn your child's cues and patterns of behavior before a certain action or response (i.e., whining before a meltdown).

• Make the effort to respond to their needs as often as possible. It confirms for them that they are safe and cared for.

• Teach them how to play independently by allowing lots of free play under your supervision.

• Review your family schedule and look for ways to improve consistency. Children crave stability.

• Recognize that your response to stress is mirrored in your child. When you break down or melt down, so will they, but with more oomph.

• Model calmness whenever possible. If things are feeling overwhelming, turn off the noise and "act" calmly.

• Commit to giving your child at least
15 minutes of your undivided attention every day. Read a story, cuddle or just talk.

• Hold, touch, caress and adore your child.

• Believe that responding to your child's needs in the first few years of life actually guarantees independence. They have to develop a safety base before they can feel safe traveling on their own.

• Take risks. Even if it is difficult for you to become a nurturer, do it in small doses anyway until it gets easier for you. Your child needs it!

Early Signs Child May Need Help

• Shows very little emotion

• Always fearful and on guard

• Consistent strong reactions to touch, sound or movement

• Reacts strongly for no reason

• Extremely fussy and difficult to soothe or console

• Has inconsistent sleep patterns

• Has unresolved feeding problems

• Behaves destructively toward self or others

• Cannot comfort or calm self

• Exhibits extreme sadness

• Exhibits extremely clingy behaviors

• Engages in extreme temper tantrums

• Is showing language delays

• Does not turn to familiar adults for comfort and help

James McHale, special to the Times

Fast facts

For information about early childhood mental health and resources for families with infants and toddlers:

In Pinellas County: visit, consult, or contact the Early Learning Coalition at 727-548-1439, ext. 26.

In Hillsborough County, the Early Childhood Council can connect you with dozens of partner organizations. Visit the Web site at and click on "Members'' to check them out. Or go to the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County's site, The Kid Connection Network, a program of the Early Childhood Council, can also provide information and referrals: (813) 837-7714

"Meeting the Needs of Young Children and Families: Every Moment Matters'' is a three-day conference covering a wide variety of early childhood issues. It will be held Nov. 18-20 at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. Sponsored by the Early Childhood Council of Hillsborough in collaboration with the Florida Association for Infant Mental Health, the program is meant for parents and caregivers, as well as physicians, psychologists and other professionals in the field. You can go for the whole event, or just one day. Download the program at

The first 36 months of a child's life are critical to growing up emotionally healthy 10/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 2:48pm]
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