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Creating healthy habits in Early Years: mental health

Welcome to a brand-new series! It’s all about creating and sustaining healthy habits which will give your little one the best start in life!

In this first part, we will look at all things mental health! We’ll discuss how mental health can affect your child, how to form healthy habits, what you can do to support these and more.

Let’s jump straight in.

How can mental health affect my little one?

In 2022, 1 in 6 children have been identified as having a mental health disorder, which include (but aren’t limited to) depression, anxiety, eating disorders and PTSD.

Studies which found this looked at children from as early as 5 years old. So, it’s vital we look at what we can do to encourage healthy mental health habits to nurture not just our little one’s development but their mental well-being as well.

Let’s quickly have a look at some healthy and unhealthy social and emotional behaviours you may notice in your little one:

Children who display some of these unhealthy behaviours early on may be more vulnerable to developing lifelong habits that damage their emotional wellbeing and overall health.

But even if your little one is not displaying these behaviours, we recommend creating good mental health habits to support their overall wellbeing.

How can mental health habits be formed early on?

Habits need three R’s to stick (more on this coming soon!):

- Reminders – set reminders to upkeep habits or keep a printed chart.

- Routines – habits are created by performing these regularly, make time for these in your usual routine.

- Rewards – especially at the start, rewarding your little one for sticking to habits is a good way to enforce them.

What impacts my little one’s mental health and wellbeing?

Studies suggest that there are three main risk categories that can impact your little one’s mental health:

- Household

- Community

- Environmental

Being exposed to the below early on are known by Early Years professionals as ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences or ‘ACEs’.

But please note this is not the case for all children – every child is different and can be impacted by different factors, these are just some risk factors identified by experts.

What can I do to support my little one’s mental health and wellbeing?

Here we have listed 5 habits you can focus on to support your little one's mental health, paired with easy activities to get you started!

Recognising and naming emotions

Making a habit of being able to name and recognise emotions is important when it comes to mental health. Building these foundations early on is a great way to help your child learn how to regulate their emotions.

Let’s have a look at some ‘zones of regulation’ – this is a good way to help your little one begin to understand their emotions.

How do I encourage this every day?

The best way to do this is to use language to recognise the feeling and discuss what activity can be best to regulate this emotion. For example: ‘I can see you look sad, colouring can help cheer you up.’ Or ‘you look frustrated, why don’t we take a walk outside?’.

Your child can also try these calm-down strategies

- Cuddle or weighed blanked pressure,

- Stroke an animal or soft toy,

- Stretch,

- Dance,

- Squeeze a sensory toy,

- Bear, frog or crab walk,

- Count heartbeats.


And no, we don’t mean breathing exercises! That is an option, but one of many… Let us explain.

In short, mindfulness is the act of being present and focusing most or all attention on one task. So, breathing techniques fit in this category.

Let’s look at some examples that could suit your child:

- Dancing

- Sport

- Crafts

- Colouring

- Reading

Encouraging your little one to build endurance with mindful activities within a daily routine will broaden their interests and creativity as well as allow them to engage in mentally healthy exercises.

Thinking about others and your impact

Did you know… toddlers are not only able to recognise feelings, thoughts and a sense of self but also recognise others have contrasting feelings too?!

So showing self-aware and empathetic behaviours to encourage copying can never start too early.

Self-awareness is an important skill that we use to maintain relationships, listen to other opinions, recognise differences and diversity, and build self-esteem.

How do I encourage this every day?

The best way to do this is to discuss and show empathy. For example: ‘that thunder was noisy, I can see why you might be scared. We can sit together until you feel safe again’.

Talk about the feelings of others and their impact, for example, ‘Amy is upset because you took a toy from them, would you like to ask to join in?’.

Also, model these self-aware behaviours: ‘Teddy looks lonely, let’s ask them to join in with our game’.

Books are also a great way for your little one to learn more about these, click here for some recommendations.

Controlled risk-taking

By this, we don’t really mean mountain climbing or hiking. Instead, we mean a controlled opportunity to push your child out of their comfort zone.

It’s important to note that controlled risk-taking is different for every child.

This could be trying to be more independent like putting on their own coat, playing with a different toy, meeting new friends, or trying new foods.

It gives your little one the opportunity to learn more about themselves whilst in a safe and nurturing environment.

Exercise and physical movement

Getting your little one to be physically active probably isn’t tricky but making this into a habit can be. Adding exercise into routines is so important, not just to stay physically healthy but also mentally.

The best way to do this is, as with other habits, to schedule in regular time and keep it fun! Click here for some activity ideas.

Here’s what regular exercise can do for your little one:

- Increase sleep,

- Elevate mood,

- Lower anxiety,

- Help in social development,

- Create a potential future hobby/interest.


Thanks for reading!

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