Infancy and toddlerhood is an important period in a child’s growth and is a time when brain development is occurring at a rapid rate.

In most cases, anxiety in infants and toddlers is short-lived and does not disrupt the normal course of development.

However, some infants and toddlers experience anxiety more intensely or for prolonged periods of time, and their distress can get in the way of them engaging in day-to-day interactions and activities.

When left unchecked, chronic anxiety can:

  • activate the stress response system and produce the release of cortisol
  • disrupt the developing architecture of the brain
  • adversely affect the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and facilitate learning.

Working with families and early childhood staff

Health and community professionals can play an important role in working with families and early childhood staff to provide prevention and early intervention strategies so that an infant or toddler’s healthy level of anxiety doesn't escalate into a more concerning issue.

Because every infant and toddler is different and develops at different rates, anxiety in one toddler or infant does not necessarily look the same in another. For example, whilst one toddler may display frequent tantrums and may not be easily comforted, another might withdraw or be compliant to an adult’s expectations.

It can, therefore, be confusing for parents, carers and early childhood staff to recognise the cues that might indicate the infant or toddler is experiencing anxiety, or to know how best to respond.

Because infants and toddlers develop in the context of relationships, as well as wider environmental influences, responding to their signs of anxiety requires intervention at several levels and within the context of his or her relationship with others.

Health and community professionals can offer valuable support to parents, carers and early childhood staff when there is concern about an infant or toddler’s anxiety by:

  • helping them develop an understanding of the signs and symptoms of anxiety in infants or toddlers
  • alleviate any anxieties they may have which their infant or toddler may be picking up on
  • build on their strengths and confidence in parenting
  • working with them to develop a more tailored plan as they get to know the individual infant or toddler and family, as well as their specific needs and strengths.

Collaborative partnerships

Health and community professionals who foster collaborative partnerships with parents, carers, early childhood staff and other professionals involved in the care of an infant or toddler, offer the best chance for meeting the needs of an infant or toddler who may be experiencing anxiety.

To facilitate an effective working relationship with everyone involved in an infant or toddler’s care, the KidsMatter BETLS tool which is a template for gathering information from observations about an infant or toddler’s concerning behaviours, can be used to:

  • recognise the frequency and severity of an infant or toddler’s anxiety
  • the extent to which these symptoms interfere with an infant or toddler’s desire to interact with others and/or engage in everyday activities
  • determine how long the infant or toddler’s concerning behaviour has been going on for
  • identify where and when the behaviour occurs.

Using a tool of this type is not only helpful in terms of developing a shared understanding of the nature of the concerning behaviour, health and community professionals can also use it to:

  • clarify the aims of specialised interventions
  • ensure that any responses to an infant or toddler’s distress is consistent across all environments including the home and early childhood education and care setting
  • monitor changes over time

For more information