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When babies or toddlers are exposed to life-threatening or traumatic events, they become very scared – just like anybody else.
Some common reactions may include:
- unusually high levels of distress when separated from their parent or primary carer
- a kind of ‘frozen watchfulness’ – the child may have a ‘shocked’ look
- giving the appearance of being numb and not showing their feelings or seeming a bit ‘cut off’ from what is happening around them
- loss of playful and engaging smiling and ‘coo-ing’ behaviour
- loss of eating skills
- avoiding eye contact
- being more unsettled and much more difficult to soothe
- slipping back in their physical skills such as sitting, crawling or walking and appearing more clumsy.
How trauma affects babies and toddlers
Babies and toddlers are very helpless and depend on their family and parents for a sense of safety and security.
They need emotional nurturing, through loving and reassuring interactions, and help with coping in an ongoing and consistent way.
This is how babies and toddlers develop and grow.
During their early months and years, children are very sensitive to:
- problems affecting their parents or main caregivers, which may include fear, sadness or being overwhelmed
- separation from their parent or primary carer – for instance, absence due to injury or other factors related to the trauma.
- This can have a double impact:
- distress of the separation itself and insecurity of having to manage without the safety, understanding and nurturing their carer provides.
- Both can slow recovery and increase the impact of the trauma
- what is happening in the household – babies and toddlers are affected by noise, distress or a very mixed-up routine where they are not sure what is happening next
- disruption to the development of a bond or close relationship with their parent or lack of parental understanding – trauma can sometimes get in the way and make the formation of this bond more difficult.
- If any of these things are happening, it is important to think about the effect on the baby.
If the family or primary carer is affected, the baby is probably also affected.
What to do to help babies and toddlers with trauma
Structure, predictability and nurturing are key to helping a baby or toddler who has been traumatised.
There are a number of things parents and carers can do to help their baby or toddler cope with and recover from trauma.
Seek, accept and increase any support you need to help you manage your own shock and emotional response.
Get information and advice on how the baby or toddler is going.
Learn to recognise and manage the child’s signs of stress and understand cues for what is going on for them.
Reduce the intensity and length of the initial stress reaction by helping the child settle and to feel safe and cared for as quickly as possible.
Maintain the child’s routines around being held, sleeping and feeding.
Offer a calm atmosphere and soothing activities.
Avoid any unnecessary separations from important caregivers.
Avoid exposing the child to reminders of the trauma, where possible.
Expect that the child may temporarily regress (go backwards) in their behaviour or become ‘clingy’ and dependent.
Don’t panic if this occurs – it is one of the child’s ways of trying to cope with what they have been through.
Take time out to recharge yourself.
When to seek help for babies and toddlers after a traumatic event
The first and second year of a child’s life has lots of ups and downs.
Development may slow down for a while and then move forward again.
It can sometimes be difficult to work out if this is just one of those times or whether something more serious is happening.
It may help to seek professional advice if:
the baby or toddler is slipping backwards in development
development slows down, especially if this occurs following a traumatic event or major disruption in the family and household
you feel that the trauma has got in the way of knowing your baby, developing close, loving feelings and feeling connected to them – it is important to seek help to get this bonding process back on track
you have been separated from the baby or toddler at the time of danger or during its aftermath
you or other carers are emotionally unwell with stress, grief, anxiety, exhaustion or depression – this can have a serious effect on the baby or toddler
your family has lost their home and community.
There is increasing evidence to suggest that the younger a child, the more serious the post-traumatic problems.
Actively seeking help and advice is important.
How to know a baby under stress or trauma
These are some of the changes that can be seen in infants and children under stress:
- sleep problems, nightmares, reluctance to go to bed or get up
- changes in dressing, eating and toilet habits
- irritability, uncooperative, listless or bored
- clinging to family or familiar things, needing objects for security
- unable to cope with change or ordinary problems
- reverting to immature behaviour or habits they had previously grown out of
- changes in relationships with parents, becoming more demanding, possessive, withdrawn, or uncommunicative
- relationships with brothers, sisters and peers become more difficult. Often there is an increase in conflict, competition, aggression or withdrawal within these relationships
- preoccupation with the trauma – wanting to talk about it, playing it out, wanting to see where it happened
- excessive concern for others – holding back their needs to protect adults and anxiety about loved ones
- reduced school performance, concentration or ability to play constructively
- overactive behaviour, restlessness or dissatisfaction
- small ailments or injuries are exaggerated or used to get comfort and security
- transitions such as from preschool to school may be more difficult. Often there are problems at the start or end of daily activities
- exaggerated reactions to small crises. This may be an expression of their distress about the incident which often they don’t fully understand.
How to help a babies with trauma
- It’s better to tell children what has happened. Giving them the facts (but without unnecessary detail) helps prevent their imagination taking over.
- Encourage them to express emotions. Fear and sadness are their way of coming to terms with what has happened. Hold them or stay with them, offer support while they are upset and then talk about it afterwards.
- Keep communication open by asking questions to find out what they are thinking or imagining. Tell them how adults feel and what the actions of adults under stress mean. This will prevent children blaming themselves.
- Reassure them about the future, especially the small details of life which are such an important part of their world.
- Encourage them to continue to be children, to play, explore and laugh when they want to, even though the adults may not feel like it. Children are often able to take their minds off the trauma better than adults.
- Maintain routine and familiarity to help children see that life is secure and predictable.
- Reduce change of any type to a minimum. When change is necessary, take time to prepare children for it.
- Keep them informed of how their recovery is going and what to expect.
- Don’t make this the time to correct bad habits, and don’t overreact to unusual misdeeds or bad behaviour. Talk about the behaviour with the child – they may need to let their tension out somehow.
- Give children time to sort themselves out with your support. Don’t expect it to be over quickly.
- Keep track of the child. Remember what they say and do, and try not to let lasting changes in temperament and behaviour creep up without noticing.
- Make time for just being together. Take time out and re-establish recreational activities and outings as soon as you can. Pleasure is an important part of healing.
- Re-involve the child in chores and responsibilities as soon as they are ready to cope with them again.
- Take all their concerns, complaints and questions seriously. They may be trying to express something important which they don’t have the right words for.
- Parents need to get support to work through their own reactions, so they can help their child.