Social and Emotional Strategies to Support Young Infants

Social and Emotional Strategies to Support Young Infants

Family bonding

Some simple things that adults often do or can be encouraged to do that help to grow infants social and emotional health include; gently holding and cuddling children often, enriching children’s daily routines such as meal, bath and nap times, by sharing looks, smiles, conversations, and stories and attentively respond to children’s attempts to communicate with facial expressions, gestures, cooing, babbling, and words. Adults can gently mirror infant’s sounds and expressions.

Adults caring for young infants can often struggle with the child’s self regulatory patterns including sleeping and calming. Most new parents experience sleepless nights during the first three months of their child’s life. Although young infants spend up to 16 hours per day sleeping, their sleep patterns often do not follow the same day-night patterns that adults typically prefer. It is not uncommon for newborns to sleep for only an hour or two at a time. Newborn infants typically need to eat approximately every 3-4 hours (more frequently for infants who are breastfed). By about 3 months of age, infants typically begin to sleep for longer periods of time. By about 6 months, many infants sleep through the night. This is the age when infants typically are able to eat enough during the day that they can sleep through the night without getting hungry.

Infants may develop consistent routines between 4-6 months of age. Until that time, feeding and sleeping work best when they are on the baby’s own unique schedule. Nevertheless, parents can help set the stage for sleep routines in early infancy. Parents can:

  • Keep their infant active during daylight hours. Spend time outside, and interact during the day by talking, singing, and playing.
  • Keep nighttime calm. When infants wake during the night, parents can go about feeding and diapering, but should use dim lights, quiet voices, and calming interactions. This will help the baby learn to associate nighttime with rest.
  • Help children fall asleep on their own. Cuddling, rocking, and holding the baby can (and should) be part of the bedtime routine. However, after cuddling and rocking, it can be helpful to put the infant in her crib while she’s sleepy but still awake. This will help the infant learn to soothe herself to sleep. Some infants also respond well to swaddling, or wrapping the infant snuggly in a blanket. It is very important to remember that very young newborns (under 4 months) are not yet able to soothe themselves when they are upset. This means that they should not be left to “cry it out.” Parents can help young infants learn to calm themselves by staying near, gently stroking their faces or backs, singing quietly, or rocking them.
  • Establish a bedtime routine. Even in early infancy, parents can start soothing evening routines. This may include a bath, story, quiet music, etc. Soon, infants will begin to associate these events with sleep.
  • Learn the child’s natural habits and make gradual adjustments to routines, if needed. Like adults, some infants are naturally “night owls.” Families may benefit from adjusting their own routines to meet the infant’s needs. Additionally, parents may be able to gradually adjust infant’s routines. By gradually increasing the time between feeding or naps by only a few minutes each day, some parents are able to help their infants sleep for longer periods of time.

Sometimes an ECMH consultant will get a referral for an infant that is “fussy” or hard to calm. Usually infants have a so-called “fussy” period each day, most frequently in the evening hours. It is a period when it seems like nothing is working in terms of soothing the baby. Fortunately, for most infants, these “fussy” periods do not last long. As the infant develops they are less frequent in both number and length. The length peaks at about three hours per day at age six weeks and decreases to one or two hours by three or four months. Typically the infant calms down within a few hours and seems to be happy throughout the rest of the day. If the crying behavior does not stop and intensifies and persists throughout the day as well as the night, the cause might be something that needs to be checked more thoroughly by the child’s pediatrician or other health specialist. A possible cause may be colic. About one-fifth of infants develop colic. Infants with colic often cry and scream. Their stomach is enlarged or distended with gas and they extend and pull up their legs in order to pass the gas. Another indicator is that the crying happens throughout the day and it usually becomes worse in the early evening.

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This product was developed [in part] under grant number 1H79SM082070-01 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The views, policies and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of SAMHSA or HHS.