Dad reading to baby

Do babies have mental health?

Published on
07 February 2024

During Children’s Mental Health Week, Dr Matt Price is here to explain how good mental health starts right from the beginning of a child’s life. Dr Matt, our Strategic Lead for Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, supports babies and their families through the NHS, and as an advisor to the Department of Health and Social Care.Read his thoughts on how to lay the best foundations for good mental wellbeing in the first two years of your child’s life. 

The foundations of future mental health begin in pregnancy and infancy 

We know that the earliest stages of life, including preconception, pregnancy, and the first two years, play a crucial role in our future mental health and wellbeing. It may come as a surprise to hear that babies do, in fact, have a form of mental health because they experience lots of feelings and are learning ways to manage them. Babies have big feelings – as any parent or carer who has tried to calm a crying baby knows! – they need support from parents and carers to manage those feelings as their brains are not developed to manage their feelings on their own yet. 

A baby’s brain develops at a rapid rate in the first two years of life – with more than one million connections every second! This means that you can help to shape their growing brain to give them the skills they need to manage their feelings and promote good future mental health. 

After repeated experiences of warm and consistent love and care, babies become toddlers, children, and young people who can manage their own feelings. They can also build relationships with others and are more ready to learn and grow academically, emotionally and socially. 

Consistent loving support from parents and carers helps to pave the way for good mental health 

So, whilst babies may not have ‘mental health’ in the way that we would understand it for older children and adults, they certainly have strong feelings and need support with those feelings. If we offer this support, babies will grow up knowing that their needs matter and others will be there for them to help them when they struggle. This will, then, lay the foundations of children beginning to be able to manage their own feelings, with less support needed from grown-ups, as they get older and develop into adults.

Matt Price
Although it is never too late to support our children with their mental health and feelings, their first two years are a particularly important time of development.

Dr Matt Price  

Strategic Lead for Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy

There are lots of ways that parents and carers can support their baby’s social and emotional development 

It may feel like a tall order to support your baby’s brain development in a way that helps their future mental health. But it’s the small things that you can do over and over again that add up to make a difference. 

Focus on your baby’s feelings 

It’s never too early to start naming your baby’s feelings. For example, if they cry while getting their nappy changed you can show them you understand by using a gentle and soothing voice while saying “I see that you’re feeling sad about getting your nappy changed. It feels cold and a bit uncomfortable. I’ll be as quick as I can and then we can have a nice warm cuddle.” If this is done regularly, it will add up to making a big difference.  

Prioritise playtime 

This will look different depending on the age of your baby, but it is also a perfect time to start putting their thoughts into words by describing what they are doing. For example, “Oh, you’re wondering if the blocks will stand up and make a tower.” For younger children, this could be as simple as sitting them on your lap and enjoying eye contact with them while they look at you and listen to your voice. As they grow, this could turn into a game of peekaboo. For older babies and toddlers, try to set aside time for uninterrupted play. You don’t need to lead this play; you can sit back and watch carefully what your baby is interested in.  

Look after your own wellbeing too 

Supporting your baby with their feelings doesn’t mean that you must be a perfect parent. No one is perfect and trying to be perfect won’t help you or your baby. Your baby just needs your to be ‘good enough’ - which means trying your best to meet their needs with warmth and love, as much as you can. It is important to consider your own needs as well when caring for your baby – as the adage goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. 

How we at Barnardo’s can help 

There are different ways we can support babies to develop good mental health to prepare them for the challenges they may face in later life. At Barnardo’s, we run several online and in-person support services for parents and carers who look after children and young people throughout the many stages of their lives.