Mental health in infants with congenital heart conditions

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It is important to pay attention to infant mental health, especially for babies with congenital heart disease (CHD). Learn how to read your baby's cues and how you can help your baby achieve their developmental milestones.

Key points

  • The first few months of life can be stressful for you and for your baby with CHD, which can impact your baby’s mental health.
  • Pay attention to your baby’s cues including sounds, facial expressions and gestures, and respond to them sensitively.
  • Research shows that parents’ mental health has a direct impact on the brain development and mental health of their baby.

What is infant mental health?

Infant and early childhood mental health, sometimes referred to as social and emotional development, includes an infant and young child’s capacity to:

  • experience, regulate and express emotions
  • form close interpersonal relationships
  • explore their environment and learn.

Infants who are not doing well emotionally may have trouble achieving developmental milestones.

Paying attention to a baby’s mental health can have a lifelong impact, especially for babies with congenital heart disease (CHD). The early years are a period of unmatched physical and mental growth for all children. It is estimated that more than one million new connections in the brain are made every second. From the early months of life, a baby can experience joy and excitement but also has the capacity to feel anger, fear, sadness and hopelessness.

This period of growth is heavily dependent on the experiences and patterns that are established in a baby’s caregiving environment. The first few months of life can be stressful for you and for your baby with CHD. It’s important to pay attention to your own mental health as well as your baby’s mental health. Research has shown us that a child’s ability to manage their full range of emotions, also known as self-regulation, is one of the most important factors for success in school, work and managing relationships.

How to read your baby’s cues

Your baby knows more and feels more than you may think. The following are a few ways that your baby communicates with you:

  • When your baby wants company, they look at your face
  • When your baby has had enough of your company, they turn away
  • When something is wrong, your baby cries.

What can you do for your baby?

From the moment your baby is born, try to tune in to your baby’s cues, including their sounds, facial expressions, and gestures, and respond sensitively. Let your baby know their needs and feelings are important and recognized. In the first year of your baby’s life, crying is the most important way your baby can tell you what they want. There are three important times to pay attention to your baby’s cries:

  1. When your baby is sick
  2. When your baby is hurt
  3. When your baby is upset (for example, when they are sad, frightened or lonely) Comforting your baby at these times does not spoil them. It makes your baby feel respected and loved. The way you respond to your baby during the first year of life teaches your baby if they can depend on you. No one can comfort a baby ALL the time. What matters is that MOST of the time when your baby cries, you try to comfort them.


  • Bring your face close so that your baby can see your features and expressions
  • Sing, cuddle, read, massage, touch and play (you are their favourite toy)
  • When your baby smiles, smile back; when they coo, talk to them
  • Focus on your baby and make yourself emotionally available
  • Until your baby can talk, you need to be their voice and speak up for the things that they need

Young infant

  • Talk, sing and imitate your baby's coos and babble. Your baby will look at you and coo and babble back
  • Respond consistently, by making the world predictable, you help your baby make sense of the world and to feel safe and secure
  • When your baby is seeking your attention, respond with touch (e.g., pick them up) or with your voice (e.g., let them know you are there)
  • Continue to be your baby's advocate

Late infancy

  • Follow your baby's lead when exploring the world. You will come to learn what your baby enjoys doing and will be able to foster that interest and expand on it
  • Acknowledge likes/dislikes, preferences and feelings. Your baby is a unique person with a unique personality which may be different from yours
  • Provide comfort when your baby gets upset. Use words to help label and express various feelings
  • Spend quality time with your baby

Letting your baby cry

There may be times where you are not able to immediately comfort your baby or situations where your baby will continue to cry because they are scared or uncomfortable.

  • When you are really upset or angry, calm yourself before you pick up your baby.
  • When something unpleasant has to happen to your baby, such as going through a difficult medical treatment, it can be difficult for you as well. Staying calm may help your baby manage the distress and to comfort them afterwards. Babies are less frightened and cry less if their parents stay calm and hold them during (if possible) and after difficult or painful procedures.
  • Some babies are very sensitive to being touched or bathed. They may cry and fight when you wash or dress them. Try to do this as quickly as you can if your baby is sensitive to being touched or bathed. Stay calm and say soothing things to your baby and to yourself. This may help you both deal with the situation.

Being a parent isn’t always easy

  • You may find it hard to comfort your baby when they are sick. Remaining calm will help them feel safe.
  • Some babies cry a lot during the first few months of life. They may be hard to comfort. If your baby does not comfort easily, you may feel helpless and upset. It is normal to feel that way. Your baby will still get the message that you are trying to comfort them.
  • When you cannot comfort your baby calmly, take a break and get someone to help you if you can. All parents need someone to help them when they feel that they have too much to deal with.

Does your mental health affect your baby’s mental health?

Your mental health has a direct impact on your baby’s brain development. A parent’s mental health has implications on their child’s ability to learn and has a direct impact on the child’s later physical and mental health. When your baby’s health is compromised and they are undergoing intense medical treatment, such as on the cardiac unit, it is very difficult on your mental health and emotional well-being. For some parents and caregivers, feelings of sadness, anger and hopelessness can arise. Infants and toddlers rely on parents and primary caregivers to provide a safe environment.

Last updated: May 22nd 2018