Any parent of more than one child knows just how different babies can be from one another, even from the very beginning. Some children are more challenging than others, reacting more intensely to environmental stimuli such as light and noise. These children are more difficult to soothe and may not sleep well.
While it's true that every child's personality is different and that behavior can be influenced by both temperament and the home environment, parenting choices and understanding can make a big difference in helping a fussy child feel safe and secure. Here's how environment affects infants' temperament and mental health, and what that means for families.
How Environmental Stress Affects Babies
As adults, we know that the environment around us affects our well-being. Being safe and comfortable promotes good mental and physical health while instability, lack of temperature control, and other negative environmental factors can have health consequences and even lead to preventable deaths. If you live in a healthy environment, you are likely to live longer and enjoy your life more.
Infants have similar reactions to their environment. If the environment is poor, they will become stressed. "Toxic stress" is a serious problem for babies and can affect their development and mental health. High emotionality can reflect the surrounding environment and can be a sign that a baby might need extra help to develop on schedule.
Creating a healthy environment can be difficult for some families. Low-income parents, single parents, those in vulnerable communities, and families struggling with mental health may not have the resources or ability to provide the environment needed for optimal development and infant mental health. Additionally, some children are just more sensitive and need extra nurturing.
The Impact of Positive Environmental Factors on Infant Temperament
The good news is that parents can make a difference in their children's lives simply by improving their early environment and providing plenty of enrichment. Even if some negative environmental factors are out of their control, caring parents can still provide loving care, support, and engagement with their children as they develop.
Research indicates that environment does play an important role in good mental health, but very few people are aware of how much emotional and social development takes place during the first few years and how the environment affects that development. Mental Health Colorado offers a toolkit for people who want to promote the importance of early mental health in their communities. Within the toolkit, there are six steps for communities to take:
- Identify: Designate a dedicated person to spearhead the initiative.
- Assess: Find resources, both online and in the local community, for early mental health support and early learning.
- Promote: Understand the unique needs of the community and decide which practices will be the most helpful.
- Share: Educate and advocate within the community. Make sure parents are aware of the importance of infant mental health.
- Support: Provide resources and support for families needing help in creating a supportive environment for development.
- Follow up: Continually measure success, improve initiatives, and seek funding.
Many children could have enhanced mental health and well-being if education and resources were available. If you have your own child, learn as much as you can about creating a supportive environment and spread the word to other parents. If you don't, pitch in to create community awareness and resources.
Removing Negative Environmental Factors
Of course, creating the right environment for children to thrive isn't always easy. Families living in poverty often do not have the financial ability to improve their housing situation or provide the enrichment needed for optimal development. There are many different scenarios that can cause a poor environment for an infant that may be out of the family's control.
This is a crucial period for brain development, and it's extremely time-sensitive. Addressing infant mental health issues also means addressing the environmental stressors in their families' lives, which can be very complex.
We need to ensure that families have access to quality healthcare so they can stay well and get advice from an experienced healthcare provider. Families also need access to healthy food and safe housing. Once these basic needs are met, parents are better able to focus on ensuring their children are developing as expected and providing a loving, supportive environment without living in constant worry.
Learn More and for Further ReadingAlthough infant mental health is still a concept many are unfamiliar with, there are lots of great resources available online. Two reliable sources include the World Association for Infant Mental Health and Maine Association for Infant Mental Health. Get educated and spread the word!