Australia

Very unsettled babies 'mental health risk'

Infants who cry a lot, throw too many tantrums while experiencing feeding and sleep issues are at greater risk of mental health problems, a study has found

Extremely unsettled babies with a combination of sleeping and feeding problems are at a greater risk of developing mental health issues during childhood, a new study has found.

Babies at the age of one who cried a lot, had excessive sleep issues, threw many severe tantrums and had problems eating solids are 10 times more likely to display symptoms of mental health problems, according to research from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI).

The paper, to be published in the journal Pediatrics, was presented at the Sleep Down Under Conference in Brisbane on Monday after lead author Dr Fallon Cook followed up on the babies' mental health at ages five and 11.

"These babies are also more likely to have delayed language development and reduced academic achievement," Dr Cook said.

But parents with babies who don't sleep consistently should not be alarmed by the findings, the researcher said.

"It is the combination of multiple severe problems that can indicate the beginning of difficulties for the child."

Around 25 per cent of parents reported a 12-month-old with disturbed sleep, but not other unsettled behaviours, and they did not have any poor mental health outcomes, Dr Cook told AAP.

The study found about 3.4 per cent of the nearly 2000 children in the study fell under the "moderate to severe regulatory problems" category that indicated increased risk of poorer mental health in childhood.

While previous research had shown mental health difficulties emerge during childhood or adolescence, this study showed the pathway towards poor mental health can begin in infancy, Dr Cook said.

The MCRI researchers collected data from 1759 children, with parents reporting whether their infant had trouble with sleeping, feeding and excessive crying.

Dr Cook said the next step would be to create a checklist that helps screen for regulatory problems, especially as some extremely unsettled behaviour could be caused by underlying medical issues, for example eczema.

"We hope that by identifying infants at risk for poor mental health during childhood, we may be able to develop new interventions," she said.

Specialist infant GP Dr Pamela Douglas, who helps families with unsettled babies almost daily, says an infant mental health risk checklist could be rolled out to pediatricians, GPs and child health nurses.

"We need to deal with this as a health system," Dr Douglas said.

For parents wondering about "normal" behaviour, Dr Douglas advised roughly 50 per cent of 12-month-olds will wake in the night and signal for help, while 50 per cent will naturally sleep for eight hours and self settle during that period.

While such waking and needing help to get back to sleep was normal, excessive night waking could indicate an underlying issue such as a disrupted circadian clock or medical problem, Dr Douglas said.

Parents with concerns for their children should go to their GP, she said.

Abnormal feeding issues were a "serious problem" and should be addressed immediately, with the doctor recommending parents enlist the help of a specialist speech pathologist.

Dr Douglas said the research showed the importance of providing parents with evidence based advice: "Parents are subjected to so much conflicting advice when seeking help for unsettled behaviour."

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