In focus: Supporting your baby’s mental health and wellbeing


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child. ‘Infancy’ is the period from birth to two years of age.

Caring for an infant can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be demanding. There is a lot to learn about your new little person, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed or frustrated at times.

This resource aims to help parents and caregivers understand the importance of promoting children’s mental health and wellbeing right from birth. It explores what you can do to support your baby’s social and emotional development, and protect their mental health and wellbeing.

Becoming a parent is a big change. It’s not unusual to be surprised by how much is involved and how much it changes your life.

Adjusting to parenthood

Many parents find the first six weeks or so after their baby is born are the toughest. The initial joy and excitement of meeting your baby can quickly move into common challenges, including:

  • lack of sleep
  • physically recovering from the birth
  • learning to feed your baby
  • understanding and coping with your baby’s crying
  • navigating relationship changes/conflicts; and
  • adjusting to the loss of your pre-parent identity and freedom.

Additionally, as you begin your own parenting journey, you may also receive advice from loved ones about how you should care for your baby. While they mean well, this advice can make you feel unsure about how you’re doing as a new parent.

All of these things can make this a difficult time to navigate.

‘I really wanted to become a parent, but it’s been a big shock to our lives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been exciting, and I adore Jasmine. But it’s way more stressful than I realised. There’s always so much to do and I’m always really tired. Not to mention that everyone has an opinion on how we should be parenting.’

– Lou, mum, New South Wales

These are common experiences and feelings, yet many new parents don’t ask for help. People often think they should naturally know what their baby needs and how to respond. They may feel guilty if they’re unable to settle their baby quickly, or if they’re not constantly feeling overjoyed about parenting.

But babies don’t come with an instruction manual. And there is so much to learn – about feeding, bonding, bathing, nappies, sleep and routines, just for a start.

The good news is there is lots of information for new parents about what infants need and how to care for your baby:

It’s important to know that bonding with your baby may not happen instantly. It can take time over the first few weeks, even months, for you and your infant to get to know each other and build an attachment. Try being curious about how your baby is experiencing the world: What are they learning? How are they changing? What might they be feeling?

And rather than comparing yourself to other parents, think about what kind of parent you are and want to be, your strengths and your hopes for your family.

In the following audio clip (1 minute, 55 seconds), mental health accredited social worker, Vicki Mansfield talks about our natural tendency to compare ourselves to others during the transition into parenthood.

Download the transcript of Vicki Mansfield’s explanation of ‘comparisonitis’.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help if you are unsure what to do. Your GP, child and adolescent health nurse or paediatrician are great places to start. Some other good sources of advice about adjusting to parenthood are:

The Raising Children Network has also pulled together a list of parent helplines in each state and territory.

Understanding your infant’s mental health and wellbeing

As well as meeting all your baby’s physical care needs, such as keeping them safe, fed and clean and making sure they get enough sleep, it’s important to understand and take care of their mental health.

An infant with positive mental health can experience and express their emotions, form close and secure relationships, explore their environment in an age-appropriate way, and learn. Like adults, an infant’s mental health is not fixed – it moves back and forth along a continuum, from ‘positive’ or ‘going OK’, to ‘experiencing difficulties’ or ‘needing support’ from parents or a health professional.

Your baby’s mental health is affected by many factors, including their ‘inner world’ (their individual characteristics, temperament and emotions), their relationships with their parents and other family members, and what’s happening in their home and the world around them. These factors are interrelated, meaning that what happens in one area of your baby’s life can impact other areas, and in turn affect their mental health and wellbeing.

The following statements show some examples of what positive infant mental health might look like:

  • ‘I am born with my own unique temperament.’
  • ‘I am my relationship with my caregivers.’
  • ‘I am my own little person.’
  • ‘I am my culture.’
  • ‘I am sensing and feeling with my body.’
  • ‘I am watching, listening, thinking and feeling.’
  • ‘I am playful.’
  • ‘I am jumping for joy…and stomping with frustration.’
  • ‘I am sometimes puzzled…sad…and frightened.’
  • ‘I am dependent…and independent.’
  • ‘I am making meaning of my inner and outer worlds.’
  • ‘I am the future.’

The good news is that most infants experience positive mental health most of the time. But while mental health disorders are not usually diagnosed during infancy, even babies can experience issues that could lead to future mental health problems if they’re overlooked.

Infants experiencing mental health difficulties might have trouble calming down, become very upset when separated from their parent/s, or have problems with sleeping, eating or excessive crying. These are referred to as ‘regulatory disorders’ and there’s more information about them later in this resource.

It’s important to know the signs that your baby might be struggling, because getting support early reduces a child’s risk of experiencing mental health difficulties later in life. But it can be hard for parents to know what ‘normal’ infant behaviour looks like – especially when babies are growing and changing so quickly. Plus, many signs of infant mental health difficulties are the same as symptoms of physical illness. It’s helpful to be aware of key developmental milestones, and if you have any concerns, talk to your GP or child health nurse.

Find out more about infant mental health and wellbeing in our resource, Understanding infant mental health and wellbeing (for parents).

While they are not as obvious as your infant’s physical growth and new skills, it’s important to notice how their thoughts and feelings are developing too.

Developmental milestones for babies

Infants grow and learn so quickly. In the first three years of your baby’s life, their brain will almost triple in size!

Physically, your baby will go from having very little control over their body to crawling, standing, walking then running. At the same time, they’re rapidly learning and developing communication, social and emotional skills.

In the following video (3 minutes, 5 seconds), watch how Molly interacts with her baby Frankie and talks about the developmental changes she’s noticed.

Key developmental milestones for infants (birth to around two years) include:

  • 0–2 weeks: Your baby builds relationships through facial expressions, gazing and crying.
  • Four weeks: They can follow an object and focus on a face.
  • 6–8 weeks: Your baby will interact with caregivers through vocalisation (making sounds), eye contact, smiling and crying.
  • Two months: They can lift their head when lying on their tummy.
  • 3–4 months: Your baby will increasingly try to get your attention (for example, by making noises or grabbing your face), reach for objects, laugh and hold their head up.
  • Six months: Your baby cries less as they have learned other ways to communicate with you. They may roll over.
  • Seven months: Your baby may be sitting up and starting to crawl.
  • Nine months: They may pull themselves up to stand, start to recognise emotions and experience separation anxiety (get upset if they are away from their primary caregiver).
  • Around 12 months: Infants enjoy communicating, understand more than they can verbalise and express more emotions. Your baby may talk in their own language or say a few clear words. They can hold things between their thumb and forefinger. Many infants start walking around this age.
  • 18 months: Most toddlers can use some words, need structure and routine, and are starting to show their individuality.
  • By two years: Many toddlers like to help; they start to engage in more complex play.

Keep in mind that while development generally happens in this order and babies reach milestones around these ages, every baby is unique and develops differently. For example, babies who were born prematurely can experience developmental delays. If you have any concerns about your baby’s development, talk to your GP or child health nurse.

For more information about infant development and milestones, check out:

Signs of infant mental health difficulties

With these milestones in mind, what are the signs your baby could be experiencing mental health difficulties and needs support?

Infants with positive mental health and wellbeing are usually achieving their developmental milestones (taking into consideration any disability they may have). They are engaging with you (for example, keeping eye contact, smiling and laughing), sleeping and feeding well (mostly), and showing an interest in the world around them.

These are signs that your baby is discovering their emotions and behaviours and, with your help, learning to soothe and regulate themselves.

In the following audio snippet (1 minute, 3 seconds), Brad Morgan, Director of the Emerging Minds: National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health shares how mental health is about more than just being ‘happy’.

Download the transcript of Brad Morgan discussing what positive mental health looks like. 

Signs of infant mental health difficulties (sometimes referred to as ‘regulatory disorders’ or ‘regulatory disturbances’) include:

  • being under-responsive or over-responsive to noises, touch or visual stimulation (like a toy with flashing lights or a crowd of people). An under-responsive infant might seem numb or withdrawn; an over-responsive infant may be easily startled or difficult to calm down
  • being ‘fussy’ – screaming, whining, crying easily and often
  • attachment difficulties – your baby not bonding with or responding to you. For example, they may not want to make eye contact with you or be held for an ongoing period
  • excessive crying or crying that can’t be soothed
  • consistent sleep issues like sleeping for only short periods
  • feeding difficulties, such as refusing to eat or reflux (spitting up milk).

As mentioned earlier, it can be hard to identify these signs because babies are developing and changing so rapidly. In the first few months, many parents worry about their baby’s sleep or excessive crying. Most of the time these behaviours are normal and naturally pass as the baby develops.

But if you’re concerned about any of your baby’s behaviours, speak with your GP or child health nurse. They can provide support or recommend further resources if needed.

There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Parenting is an ongoing process of getting to know your child and what they need to thrive.

Supporting your baby’s mental health and wellbeing

A child’s closest relationships – with their parents, extended family and carers – are the most significant factors in their life. From birth, the quality and stability of those key relationships influences how a child’s brain grows and functions. This can impact their mental health and wellbeing, self-confidence, learning, behaviour and how they relate to others.

The most protective thing for an infant’s mental health is having a positive, loving relationship with at least one caregiver. Through their relationship with you, your baby learns about the world – whether it’s a safe place to explore, whether they’re loved, how people respond when they laugh or cry, and so much more.

Children also learn by watching your relationships with others. How you interact with your partner or co-parent and other family members can affect your baby’s wellbeing, too. If there is conflict or violence in your relationships or your home it needs to be addressed – not just for your own wellbeing, but also to protect your infant’s mental health.

Domestic, family and sexual violence and abuse is never OK. Abuse can be physical, emotional, psychological and/or financial and is any pattern of behaviour with the aim of gaining power and control.

1800 RESPECT provides information and support for anyone experiencing violence and abuse. Their trained counsellors are available via phone on 1800 737 732 or online chat 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A child’s mental health and wellbeing are greatly influenced by their parent’s mental health, particularly during infancy. If you have any mental health concerns it’s important to seek support, to protect your baby’s future mental health.

The importance of looking after yourself

While making sure your baby’s needs are met will be your priority, it’s also important to take care of yourself. If you’re not physically and mentally healthy it’s very hard to be the parent you want to be. The small moments you take for yourself will help you to feel more able to manage the demands of parenting, so you and your infant can enjoy your time together.

You might see self-care as a luxury, but it isn’t all bubble baths and face masks. Self-care is anything you do intentionally to look after your own health and wellbeing – like eating well, getting sleep when you can and staying active. Parents who are kind to themselves and take time to relax and recharge are more confident in their parenting and have more positive interactions with their children. Those positive parent-child interactions are key to your baby’s development and future mental health.

Learn more about the importance of self-care for parents and some strategies for looking after yourself, even if you have only five or 10 minutes to spare.

Depression and anxiety in new parents

All the changes, lack of sleep, and physical and emotional stresses of caring for an infant can leave new parents feeling flat.

Feeling tired or overwhelmed sometimes, especially in the first few weeks after your baby is born, is very common. Many people experience the ‘baby blues’ in the first week or so after giving birth due to hormonal changes. Usually after a few days (sometimes a week or two) of being teary and feeling a bit anxious, these feelings pass on their own. But feelings of sadness and hopelessness that last longer and impact on your daily life and ability to enjoy and care for your baby might be signs of postnatal depression.

Similarly, while feeling stressed or uncertain sometimes is normal for new parents, being constantly worried about whether you’re doing things right or that something bad will happen to your baby might indicate postnatal anxiety.

If you do notice ongoing difficulties, make an appointment to see your GP. They will be able to talk through what you are experiencing and offer advice and further supports as needed. You can access more information services and support in our resource on perinatal depression and anxiety.

When you smile back at them, or pick them up when they reach for you, your baby feels safe and loved.

Bonding with your baby

Bonding and attachment are key to your baby’s development. Before they can understand language and speak, infants communicate by using nonverbal cues. They use their cries, gaze, vocalisations (making sounds, squealing), mirroring actions and body movements to let you know when they want to communicate and connect with you.

When you notice and consistently respond to your baby’s cues and cries, your bond with them grows. When you smile back at them, or pick them up when they reach for you, you are showing your baby they are safe and loved. As infants grow, they communicate more actively and respond to their parent’s expression and behaviour and the things around them.

In the following video (29 seconds), parenting consultant Dianne Halloran confirms the importance of good nurturing as a building block for lifelong mental health and wellbeing.

Like adults, every baby has a different temperament and personality. Some are louder or more expressive, while others are quieter and more relaxed. Sometimes parents can feel pressured and believe their infant should behave a certain way, but every baby is unique. Be curious about your baby:

  • What might they be thinking and feeling?
  • How are they reacting to this situation?
  • Do they want to explore new things (and people), or are they slower to warm up?

When you understand your baby’s temperament and cues, you’re able to soothe them more easily, and help them develop the skills to emotionally-regulate and calm themselves when they’re upset.

In the following video (4 minutes, 38 seconds), Laura and Josh talk about getting to know their baby’s cues.

When your baby receives a positive response, like a smile or a cuddle, it builds your bond and their trust in you. That security and trust – knowing someone will be there for them when they need – gives them the confidence to explore the world around them. It forms the foundation for your child’s resilience and sets them up for positive mental health later in life.

Simple, everyday interactions build strong, healthy brains. Some ideas include:

  • Always respond to crying, with gentle words and/or cuddles. Even if you don’t know why your baby is crying or how you can help, responding lets them know you’re there for them when they need you.
    If your baby won’t stop crying and you’re feeling overwhelmed, put them in their cot or another safe place and walk away. Go into another room or outside and take some slow deep breaths. Call a family member or friend to come and hold the baby for a while. Or call a parenting helpline to talk to someone who will understand what you’re feeling.
  • Gently massage/stroke your baby’s skin when changing their nappy.
  • Talk and sing to your baby as often as you can. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about (or how out of tune your singing is!), just smile softly and use a soothing voice.
  • React warmly when your baby tries to communicate with you. When they make sounds to get your attention, look in their eyes and respond with smiles and encouraging noises. You can have a ‘pretend’ conversation to encourage your baby to keep communicating – for example, say ‘Oh, right, then what happened?’ Or even just repeat back the sounds they’re making – for example, if your baby says ‘ba-ba’ you say ‘ba-ba’ back, taking turns.
  • Play. Infants love playing ‘peek-a-boo’ (when you hide your face behind your hands then ‘pop out’ with a smile). If your baby is squealing and showing you a toy, play with them – your response lets them know they’re loved and helps develop communication and social skills.

Sometimes bonding isn’t ‘natural’ or instant, especially if there were difficulties at the time of your baby’s birth. It can take time to understand your baby and develop a strong attachment. Don’t be hard on yourself; just take time to get to know your baby and hold them often. If you’re worried about the level of attachment or bonding between you and your baby, talk to your child health nurse or GP.

The impact of adverse experiences

Although parenting can be filled with joy and rewarding moments, it can also often be a challenging time. For many parents and families, these challenges are further impacted by other experiences, including the cost of living, limited supports and physical and/or mental health difficulties. Experiencing a traumatic event, like a car accident or a natural disaster (for example, a bushfire, flood or drought) can impact your mental health and your parenting, and of course increase your worries about how your child might be affected.

If you experienced abuse or trauma as a child (or at any point in your life), it can trigger distress, fear or anxiety during pregnancy, labour or after the birth of your baby. You might feel extremely worried about or protective of your infant. It’s important to talk to your GP, child health nurse or health professional about your worries and experiences. They can provide strategies and supports to help you manage your feelings and make sure your trauma doesn’t affect your bond with your baby and their future mental health.

Some experiences in childhood can have more lasting impacts on mental health than others. Child, parent and family stressors that can harm a baby’s development and wellbeing include:

  • experiencing trauma – the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or severe injury
  • having a parent (or close family member) with physical or mental illness
  • parental alcohol or drug use
  • poverty
  • exposure to family and domestic violence
  • periods of separation from a parent or primary carer.

Through their relationship with you, your baby learns about the world – whether it’s a safe place to explore, whether they’re loved, how people respond when they laugh or cry, and so much more.

Getting support when you need it

Parenting, especially in the first year, can be challenging. Often talking to family and friends and getting some practical support (as recommended in our self-care resource) can be enough to get you through the tough times and allow you to ‘recharge’.

If you don’t have support from family or friends, caring for a new baby is even tougher and your risk of burnout is greater. Think about who you can call on for company and support – maybe someone in your extended family (like an aunt or cousin) or friends who have young children? If you don’t have family or friends nearby, talk to your GP or child health nurse or call a parenting helpline to ask about community groups or support services in your area.

If you are not enjoying your baby the way you think you should, or you have any worries about your baby’s, or your own, mental health and wellbeing, talk to a health professional or call a parenting helpline. It’s very important to get professional help if you are having negative feelings, like disconnection or anger, towards your baby. But don’t feel ashamed or guilty. Getting support or treatment will help you to be the best parent you can be, and will help protect your baby’s mental health now and into the future.

Where to get support

The following services provide information and support for new parents:

ForWhen is a national helpline providing mental health support for expecting and new parents. Call 1300 24 23 22, Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 4:30pm.

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)’s helpline is available Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 7:30pm. Call 1300 726 306.

Phone Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 or video call to speak with a trained counsellor 7:00am to midnight, seven days a week.

Call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or speak to a counsellor via webchat anytime – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Lifeline counsellors are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or text 0477 13 11 14.

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