Is your baby eating enough, babbling enough, and what does it mean if she still hasn't rolled over when all the other babies in your play group have? New parents spend plenty of time worrying and waiting for milestones to be met. Now to add to the list, a study suggests that behind those sweet, gummy smiles, depression and anxiety may already be lurking.
A recent study out of Washington University School of Medicine found there are patterns present in the brain from birth in some children that are linked to an increased likelihood of later developing issues such as excessive sadness, shyness, nervousness, or separation anxiety as toddlers ... and anxiety and depression later in life. It all sounds a bit well, depressing, but before you spend too much time worrying that your child may be destined for a life filled with mental health problems, you should know what's really behind the headlines.
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Dr. Cynthia Rogers, lead author of the study, told CafeMom that just because a child's brain may be "wired" more for anxiety and depression doesn't mean he or she will develop either, especially if that child grows up in a positive environment. "The experiences and environment that infants are exposed to as they grow may alter these connectivity patterns making it more or less likely for these symptoms to develop," she explains.
Basically, nurture can overrule nature in many cases, which should be comforting to parents for whom so much of our children's health and happiness seems out of our control. But what exactly should that nurturing involve?
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"Caregivers that are sensitive, and have playful, positive interactions with their babies are helping to promote positive social-emotional development," Rogers told CafeMom. "One of the most important things that parents can do is to make sure that the parents are emotionally healthy, as the mental well-being of the parent has one of the largest impacts on the child's mental health."
In other words, it's that oxygen mask thing again. Parents have to take care of themselves before they can effectively care for others, and mental health is no exception.
As for any signs or symptoms of future mental illness to look out for, Rogers says there's still more research needed. However, she said there are some signs later in infancy and toddlerhood that indicate a child is at risk for anxiety disorders later. In particular, a temperament known as behavioral inhibition can be detected in older infants and is characterized by being significantly fearful, anxious or withdrawn when presented with unfamiliar objects, situations, or people.
If these behaviors are impairing, she says parents should discuss them with their pediatrician. Rogers adds that parents can also gently encourage their kids in unfamiliar situations rather than trying to shield them from things that cause them distress.
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The bottom line: Parents should stress less and enjoy their children more -- while showering them with love and attention. While there's no guarantee they still won't face some mental health challenges in their lives, it's the best we can do to help prevent them. "Positive parental support is one of the most powerful predictors of child development," Rogers says.
In the meantime, this study and future research should serve as a source of hope for parents rather than stress, as the more information we have about how mental illness develops, the more options we will have to prevent and treat it going forward.