Mentally ill baby?

Q: How early in my baby’s life can I determine if there are signs of mental illness? Or is a fussy baby a sign of potential mental illness?

A: Babies are different. Some come into the world screaming then settle down quickly once they arrive. Others keep screaming and fussing for months. Some babies slide calmly into life and negotiate challenges smoothly. Most babies show a mix of these styles. Whenever you’re curious about why a baby is acting a certain way you need to consider the baby’s current physical state, family history, and environment. Fussiness in a baby can stem from many different sources. For example, is the baby:

Physically uncomfortable?
Too hot or cold?
Hungry, wet, or gassy?

In the vast majority of cases, fussiness can be attributed to one of the above issues so there’s no need for over concern.

On the other hand, there are early warning signs that can alert you to the possibility that a baby is at risk for developing emotional, learning, behavioral problems, or even physical problems. Keep in mind, these are only indicators that you should talk to your baby’s pediatrician for further evaluation. You can’t diagnose these issues on your own. However, you could have cause for concern if your baby:

Shows a lack of interest in other people. Most babies make eye contact with people and soon learn to smile and coo. An absence of these behaviors or a sudden cessation of them could be cause for concern.

Has frequent, prolonged bouts of fussiness. Every baby gets fussy sometimes, but if yours gets extremely fussy and these bouts continue for hours, talk to your pediatrician.

Experiences unexpected changes in appetite or weight for no obvious reason. Very delayed development of expected skills
(check with your pediatrician for extensive lists of these, but don’t worry if your baby is only a little behind).

If your baby does show such signs, be aware that early intervention works far better than waiting too long to do something. Most professionals today recommend against the old fashioned approach of “wait and see.” All states have services to help you determine the nature and type of difficulty that a baby may be having. Online resources are available and you can find out more at

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.
Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D.
Authors, Child Psychology and Development For Dummies

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