More support is needed to ensure babies and young children do not develop lifelong mental health problems, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych).
It also said a failure to do this could be a breach of children’s rights.
The college is calling on the government to “prioritise” the mental health of babies and young children, saying “early action is vital”.
RCPsych’s report – Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: the case for action – outlines the risks associated with a child developing mental health problems from conception, including the mother smoking, drinking or taking drugs during pregnancy.
Childhood deprivation is also a factor, the report said, as well as experiences of domestic abuse and emotional abuse.
According to RCPsych, half of mental health conditions arise by age 14, but many begin to develop in the early years of life.
Data included in the report showed 5.5 per cent of two to four-year-olds in England had anxiety, behavioural disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders in 2017, although it recognises this is the only time mental health condition prevalence in under-fives has been measured in a UK national survey.
There is currently no national data collection on the prevalence of mental health conditions in under twos, it added.
Dr Trudi Seneviratne, registrar of the college and a consultant perinatal psychiatrist, said: “The period from conception to five is essential in securing the healthy development of children into adulthood.
“Unfortunately, these years are often not given the importance they should be, and many people are unaware of what signs they should be looking out for.
“Parents, carers and society as a whole have a critical role to play. This includes securing positive relationships and a nurturing environment that supports the building blocks of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development.”
RCPsych said there are a number of ways to prevent mental health issues in babies, including providing support for the mother in pregnancy and during the breastfeeding stage, as well as working with parents to promote attachment to their child.
Parenting programmes and parent–child interaction therapy can also be useful in the early stages of a child’s life.
The report makes nine recommendations, which Dr Seneviratne hopes will help to “bridge the current treatment and prevention gap”.
These include a call to introduce new specialist services to ensure families have access to support across the UK.
The government must also create an early childhood strategy, workforce and training plan, as well as improving data collection to better understand and support young children.
RCPsych will also develop a training strategy for all psychiatrists to ensure they are trained in basic training on assessment and interventions.
The report said support in the first five years of life creates “productive adults who can fully contribute to the wellbeing of our society”.
It also warned that failing to tackle the issue “could breach statutory legislation and the under fives’ right to mental health under Article 24 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)”.
Dr Seneviratne added: “The majority of under fives with mental health conditions are not currently receiving the level of support necessary to help them become productive, functioning adults and reach their full potential.
“We sincerely hope these measures will have a broad and lasting impact on the lives of children being born today and countless generations to come.”
The report has been backed by a number of organisations, including Unicef UK, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, the Parent-Infant Foundation, the Associate Directors of Public Health and the School and Public Health Nurses Association.
Joanna Moody, senior policy adviser for child mental health and wellbeing at Unicef UK, said: “Mental health in infancy and early childhood is often overlooked, yet it lays the foundations for a child’s future.”
She added that RCPysch’s report “provides a strong evidence base for action to prioritise mental health right from the start of children’s lives”.
“Many services play a vital role in supporting babies’ and young children’s mental health, and that of their parents and caregivers, including early childhood education, social services, maternity, health visiting, primary care, mental health and the voluntary sector,” Ms Moody said.
A government spokesperson said: “The mental health and wellbeing of babies, children and their parents is paramount, which is why we’re investing £300m in the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme.
“Of this £100m will go towards mental health support for families and promote positive relationships between infants and their caregivers, alongside £120m for other family support programmes.
“An extra £2.3bn a year by March 2024 is also being invested in expanding and transforming NHS mental health services, which will help an extra 345,000 children and young people access vital support.”