Anxiety in infancy and early childhood is a normal part of development and a natural response to age-appropriate developmental milestones.
Anxiety is also part of our biology, and can be an adaptive response that prepares us, both physically and psychologically, for coping with threat and danger.
Common anxiety in infancy
Different types of anxieties arise at different stages of development.
A common anxiety that an infant might experience is separation anxiety, which is the distress and worry that occurs when a baby fears being apart from their parent or carer.
This form of anxiety can occur at bedtime or when a baby is left in the care of someone other than their parent or carer (eg. a babysitter or staff at an early childhood and education care setting).
Separation anxiety is a common form of anxiety in infancy because this is a period when babies are forming strong attachments to their parents and carers.
Other sources of anxiety in babies can include strangers, loud noises or unexpected events.
Common anxiety in toddlerhood
Toddlerhood is a period when young children are testing their independence and building their sense of self. It is also a time when toddlers are learning to cope with strong feelings - their own and others.
When toddlers become overwhelmed by their feelings or those of others, their capacity to cope can become compromised, and as a result, they may experience anxiety.
Toddlers can also typically become anxious as a result of separation, strangers, loud noises, heights or animals.
Common symptoms and signs of anxiety in infancy and toddlerhood
Some common symptoms and signs of anxiety include:
- crying or tantrums
- an inability to be soothed easily
- disrupted day-to-day routines and rhythms (e.g. eating, sleeping)
- avoidance patterns
- avoiding interactions (eg. with parents and carers and/or their peers)
- avoiding engaging in play or other day-to-day activities
- stomach aches
- a high need for reassurance.
Risk and protective factors for infant and toddler anxiety
There are many factors that can influence whether an infant or toddler experiences anxiety. These factors, which can either have a positive or negative influence, also affect his or her capacity to cope with any anxiety they experience.
Building protective factors and reducing risk factors reduce the likelihood that an infant or toddler will experience anxiety, and strengthen his or her ability to cope with their worries.
Biological factors such as temperament and genetic vulnerability can play a part, for example some infants and toddlers may be more likely to experience anxiety because it runs in the family. Others are less likely to experience anxiety because they have an easy or more robust temperament.
Psychological factors include social and emotional skills and attachment styles. An infant or toddler whose parents or carers are overly protective, or who pick up on the anxiety of those around them, can be more susceptible to experiencing anxiety. Warm and responsive relationships on the other hand, can buffer an infant or toddler from experiencing intense anxiety.
Social factors include socioeconomic status, cultural connection, family cohesion, community connectedness and exposure to trauma. For example, stressful events including parental separation may leave an infant or toddler more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety. Living in a supportive community that creates a sense of belonging can buffer an infant or toddler from feeling anxious.
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