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Childhood trauma can have lasting effects throughout life | My Baby My Star


Are infants too young to experience and remember painful emotions or traumatic events? A growing body of research suggests this is not the case, and researchers believe that trauma experienced in infancy, if left untreated, can sometimes have lifelong health consequences.

Aside from such obvious triggers as war and terrorism, domestic violence, natural disasters like a house fire, physical abuse and community violence are examples of experienced events that can be traumatic for infants, experts say.

Experts in mental health for infants, ranging from prenatal to age 3, say babies and very young children who experience such things are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders or depression, which can linger into adulthood if left untreated.

“It’s easy to assume that babies don’t remember trauma because they express their experiences differently,” Tessa Chesher, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Oklahoma State University, who specializes in infant and young child mental health, tells Email . “At [8 to 12] Weeks old, babies have stored enough memories of it [the babies] begin to anticipate their caregiver’s behavior based on past behaviors. They start reacting based on the experiences they’ve had.”

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Evelyn Wotherspoon, a social worker specializing in infant mental health, said that “infants and very young children who have been exposed to trauma and chronic stress early on as they reach adulthood are more vulnerable to stress-related health outcomes such as diabetes, mental health problems, addiction and obesity. These kids are much more susceptible to all of these stress-related illnesses, and their brains may not be developing as they should.”

Although infants and young children are just developing, infant mental health experts say they can experience a wide range of feelings, including negative emotions, sadness, or fear. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that more than 2 in 3 children by the age of 16 had reported experiencing a traumatic event.

According to a report by the World Association for Infant Mental Health Task Force, rates of mental health disorders in infancy (which generally includes birth through age 3) are comparable to those in older children and adolescents. And a small study of 1-year-olds found that 44 percent of those who experienced severe violence against their mother at the hands of an intimate partner subsequently showed symptoms of trauma, such as increased arousal, increased aggression, or interference with normal child development. According to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, infants and young children (under age 4) can develop PTSD after events.

Kathleen Mulrooney, a consultant who is also the program director of the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Program for Zero to Three, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of babies and young children, said it’s important to note that not everyone Infant suffers trauma will be traumatized. As with adults, it depends on the infant, “because what’s traumatic for one person isn’t for another person,” says Mulrooney.

“To be traumatized, you have to be very scared,” says Charles Zeanah, psychiatrist and executive director of the Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at Tulane University School of Medicine. Infants under 12 months may not always be aware that a certain situation is actually dangerous, which may protect them from trauma, he says.

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In this context, caregivers can hold the key to protecting young children from the effects of trauma through their response. “The ability of parents or significant caregivers to provide protection and play a co-regulatory role in the stress response is critical,” Mulrooney said in an email.

When a child experiences significant trauma before age 2, but after the trauma, “the baby has the powerful protective factors of abiding safety, love, and security; You’re less likely to have mental health issues,” Chesher said in an email. “It doesn’t mean the baby didn’t suffer or that his body didn’t remember that trauma, it means there were protective factors to mitigate the effects of the trauma.”

Regina Sullivan, a developmental neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, says that while a primary caregiver “cannot protect a young child from environmental trauma, this is called social buffering because the child’s fear response is Child’s response to stress hormones is reduced – recently we showed that the caregiver actually blocks neural activity in the amygdala, the brain area responsible for anxiety.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, trauma in infancy can physically alter the developing architecture of the brain. Toxic stress—strong, frequent, or persistent adversity—has been shown in various studies to impair learning, memory, and executive functioning.

“Many brain areas in infants and young children are physically altered, and the ability of these brain areas to talk to each other is also altered by trauma,” Sullivan said.

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Trauma can be difficult to recognize

However, trauma in infancy can be difficult to recognize because infants are not yet verbal and rely on their caregivers to respond to their needs, meaning a caregiver would need to be attuned to the symptoms and seek help.

“A baby can’t just come up to you and say, ‘Hey, that happened yesterday, I’m scared,'” says Chesher. “So it’s important to really learn babies’ language and then teach people how to read that language. So if we don’t know the red flags, we don’t see trauma and can have longer-term effects on the brain.”

Experts say some red flags of trauma in babies under 12 months are: trouble feeding or sleeping and not being able to get comfort from their caregiver. A toddler (between 1 and 3 years old) can express themselves more verbally and physically than a baby. Some red flags of trauma in this age group may involve repeating traumatic events in their play or becoming aggressive, says Chesher.

“One of the issues is how this kid is expressing trauma, maybe through trouble sleeping or being a little bit more restless,” Sullivan says, “things that occur in normal kids for a variety of reasons, which makes it difficult to determine which kid is going on that.” Responding to trauma in ways that are long-lasting and harmful.”

If a parent or other caregiver is concerned about a child’s behavior and experiences, they should “request to be referred to an infant mental health specialist,” says Chesher.

Experts consider a variety of factors, with the most critical being the relationship between the baby and their primary caregiver. In addition to observing this interaction, mental health professionals may also look at “pregnancy history, birth history, medical history, developmental history, safety screenings, perinatal depression screening [for both parents]how the infant eats and how the infant sleeps,” says Chesher.

Depending on the age of the child, different interventions are available, including parent-child psychotherapy.

“It’s important that the parents or… their caregivers… have a lot of involvement in treatment because it’s through relationships with caring adults that infants really thrive and thrive,” says Zeanah.

To recover, an infant needs a caregiver in their life who can read their cues carefully and respond in a caring, patient manner, says Wotherspoon. “One of the most powerful therapeutic tools we have is the relationship a child has with a nurturing caregiver, and it only takes one and it doesn’t have to be perfect. …An infant who gets this fairly early does a wonderful job of recovering from trauma,” says Wotherspoon.

According to experts, raising awareness of infant and young child mental health among both parents and healthcare professionals is crucial. But it’s also important for parents to understand what trauma is—and what isn’t. “It’s different when a child is distressed than being traumatized,” says Zeanah.

“It’s important to differentiate from everyday events that might startle the child and that are important for the child to learn how to regulate their emotions and physiology versus trauma, from terrifying events like a tornado or a parent who experienced it Child repeats unnecessary verbal or physical abuse,” says Sullivan.

“We want parents to enjoy this time in their lives and not be afraid that they will traumatize their child by forcing them to eat vegetables or get vaccinated,” she adds. “These are normal experiences in life that the child needs to experience as part of it [the] current world.”

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