NEW YORK — At just one month old, infants show signs of temperament troubles that can turn into mood and behavior problems later in life, a new study suggests.
Infants that are fussy when they’re three to four weeks old are more likely to develop childhood mental health problems including anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavior problems, the researchers say.
“It turns out, you can predict very well from infant fussiness to later problems,” said study researcher Beth Troutman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa.
While previous studies have suggested childhood temperament is associated with later-life problems, the link has never been shown in children so young, the researchers said.
The findings suggest infants might be screened very early on, to identify those at risk for later psychiatric problems. Once identified, the children could be monitored closely and given the support they need to help prevent such problems from developing, Troutman said.
Troutman and her colleagues administered questionnaires to mothers of 111 infants between 1999 and 2002. Mothers rated their babies on fussiness by answering questions about how often their babies got upset, how intensely they cried and how fussy they were relative to other babies.
When the children were eight to 11 years old, they were again assessed by their mothers, this time for behavior and mood problems.
Infant fussiness may be an indicator that a child has a problem regulating his or her emotions, said study researcher Allison Momany, an undergraduate student at University of Iowa. This trouble with emotional management may persist throughout life and lead to some of the later mental problems.
However, “I don’t think it means every baby that cries a lot is going to have problems,” she said. Momany noted the way a mother responds to her child may play a role in modifying his or her mental health. Studies have shown when mother rats lick their pups, the action turns on certain genes in the pups that may help them make a secure connection with the mom, she said.
The researchers noted their results are based on mothers’ evaluations of their children’s fussiness and behavior, which may have skewed the findings. For instance, it’s possible a mother’s view of her child as fussy and irritable has simply continued over time. But mothers are also usually the ones to spend the most time with their children, and therefore would seem to be good judges of their child’s mood and behavior changes.
The study was presented here on Wed. (Oct. 27) at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Annual Meeting.