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.