Emotional wellbeing for you and your child

‘Wellbeing’ is not the same as ‘absence of illness’. We all experience ups and downs in our emotional wellbeing, whether or not we have a diagnosable mental illness. Having a baby is a major transition that brings physical, social and relationship changes. Emotional ups and downs can be expected – but you don’t have to cope with these alone. There are many services and resources available to support the emotional wellbeing of expectant and new parents, infants and young children, to help families make the best start in life.

Signs of emotional distress in parents and caregivers

It can be difficult to detect depression, anxiety and other mental health issues during pregnancy and early parenthood, because major adjustments are occurring at this time of life. The experience of having a baby can be emotionally overwhelming – it can seem like life has been turned upside down.

About 80% of mothers, and some fathers, experience ‘baby blues’ a few days after their child is born. You may feel unusually sensitive, teary, moody or irritable. These feelings usually fade after a few days. If these symptoms persist, they may indicate something more serious.

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, and they interfere with your daily life, talk to someone you trust. Your General Practitioner (GP, doctor) or another health professional can help.

  • heart palpitations, headaches, sweaty hands, shaking
  • unable to relax even when the baby is sleeping
  • feeling afraid to be alone or to go out
  • insomnia or restless sleep
  • loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • trouble concentrating, making decisions or getting things done
  • changes in appetite (not eating much or wanting to eat all the time)
  • feeling numb, hopeless and detached from family and friends
  • wanting to get away from everything and withdrawing from social situations
  • feeling guilty, ashamed, worthless, hopeless, helpless, empty or sad
  • feelings of grief or loss
  • feeling angry, irritable or resentful
  • feeling like you want to cry all the time
  • feeling unmotivated and unable to cope with daily life
  • low energy or feeling exhausted all the time
  • feeling like you’re losing control
  • feeling like you have too much energy and can’t slow down
  • feeling afraid of being alone with your baby
  • unusual experiences that you cannot explain
  • thoughts of harming yourself or your baby

Looking after yourself

Before, during and after pregnancy, your body and lifestyle will experience a number of changes. Here are some tips to help support your mental health and emotional wellbeing during this period:

  • be kind to yourself and have reasonable expectations
  • aim to establish a routine, doing similar things at a similar time each day
  • eat healthy meals and snacks
  • sleep and rest are important – nap when you can
  • plan some enjoyable physical activity each day (e.g. walking, swimming, pregnancy/baby yoga)
  • practise techniques to reduce stress (mindfulness, relaxation, meditation)
  • set aside some time each day to do something you enjoy
  • break tasks down into manageable pieces
  • congratulate yourself on small achievements
  • talk with someone you trust about your experiences and feelings
  • if you have a partner, spend time with them to nurture your relationship
  • involve your partner and family members in the daily care of your baby
  • develop a support network (including family, friends and health professionals), ask for help when you need it, and accept help when it’s offered

Live in the moment
Wellbeing and Self-Care

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Signs of emotional distress in infants and young children

Before your baby can speak, their behaviour is their language. As they grow and develop speech and language, they learn many ways to tell their parents what they are experiencing.

Some signs that your infant or young child is in distress and needs extra support are:

  • they show very little emotion
  • they show little or no interest in sights, sounds or touch
  • they appear to reject or avoid being touched or held
  • they don’t turn to familiar adults for comfort or help when they are hurt or upset
  • they avoid or reject playing with others
  • they seem to be fearful, worried and always on the alert
  • they are often very fussy and difficult to soothe or console
  • they have ongoing difficulties with sleep or feeding
  • their behaviour has changed suddenly
  • they are behaving aggressively

Looking after your baby or young child

Babies and young children need care that:

  • is consistent and predictable
  • is positive and loving
  • responds to their cues and signals (babies and young children communicate through their behaviour)
  • protects them from traumatic experiences
  • provides them with safe opportunities to learn, play and explore

From the mouths of babes

Relationships
When babies and young children experience loving and stable relationships, they learn what to expect of others and the world. They learn that:

  • they have agency, influence and independence (all of which grow with them)
  • they are worthy of being cared for
  • their caregivers are dependable and will care for them when they are upset

In the early years, babies and young children grow and change very quickly. They are born with a drive to explore, understand and master their world. Joy, laughter and having fun with their caregivers help get their mental health and emotional wellbeing off to a good start.

As they grow, their feelings and relationships rapidly become more complex. They struggle to understand the world and their place in it. At first they need their caregivers to help them manage their ‘big feelings’. Gradually, with support, they learn to manage and regulate their own feelings.

Every child is has  their own style of interacting and relating to their world. Caregivers have different styles too and sometimes styles don’t match easily, which can make parenting more difficult. At these times, it is important to ask for help to understand your baby or young child better.

Stress
It’s a mistake to think that a stressful event won’t affect a person because ‘they are too young to understand’. Babies and young children are affected by stressful events, and they are also sensitive to the feelings, behaviours and reactions of their parents and caregivers.

The more stressors a baby or young child experiences, the more vulnerable they become to developmental problems such as physical delays, emotional issues and challenging behaviours. These problems can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Getting help early can prevent later problems. Talk to a trusted health professional about how to best support your little one.

Looking after your family

The first few months and years of life are a sensitive period when children learn about emotions and social interactions in their family.  All children need sensitive and consistent care from a small number of people who can give them a sense of security and help them feel confident about exploring the world around them.

Babies have an inborn need and capacity to become attached to their caregivers, and their early experiences have a long-lasting impact on how they develop, their ability to learn, and their ability to manage their emotions.

Though caregivers want to do the best for their children, they may be prevented by many different factors. Some caregivers cannot give the consistent nurturing their baby needs. Factors that contribute to stress in early childhood may include:

  • the inborn nature of the baby
  • the earlier experiences and parenting approach of caregivers
  • the overall socio-economic and environmental circumstances of the family

Events and situations outside the caregiver’s control may also affect an infant or young child’s emotional development and relationships within the family.

When caregivers and their babies and young children are at odds with each other, the children may not experience a loving relationship with a caregiver who nurtures them. As a consequence, the baby or young child may:

  • appear depressed, apathetic or anxious
  • not gain weight and develop physically as expected
  • develop emotional or behavioural problems
  • be delayed in their development (e.g. social, emotional, cognitive and language skills)

However, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ (African proverb), and the outcomes for babies and young children can be changed if caregivers receive consistent and appropriate support from family, friends and social networks. Support from health professionals can be an important part of this ‘village’, helping babies, young children and families to thrive.