But he is highly likely to develop depression a few months down the line. Prof Astrid Berg, Senior Consultant and Lecturer at the UCT Parent-Infant Mental Health Service at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town says that depression can only really occur after the age of about 18 months. Children younger than this cannot actually be diagnosed with depression and they do not yet have the mental capacity to experience depression. But young babies do show signs of being unhappy, and this can and does develop into depression from halfway through the 2nd year of life onwards. Some of the early signs of an unhappy baby are withdrawal and failure to engage actively with people and the outside world. Unhappy babies are often seen as ‘good’ because they are quiet, undemanding and not very much trouble. They often do not seem to need much attention from their parents because they tend to lie quietly alone without showing much eagerness to explore and discover the world.
Withdrawn, unhappy babies look objectively sad. They don’t smile or laugh much. They might have a faraway or glazed look in their eyes, and they don’t easily play or engage with other people. They are the babies that get neglected and ignored in hospitals, orphanages or other institutions because they don’t make a fuss and because they don’t tend to capture the interest of the nurses and other caregivers. It is much harder to get a reaction from a withdrawn baby and attempts to connect with, play or get a smile or a giggle are often unsuccessful. This is very different to the way in which psychologically healthy babies are quite easily tempted to play hilarious games, for instance when you pull funny faces at them or hide your face and peep (with a big grin) out at them again. A withdrawn baby might be unable to participate in these games, or she might even start crying when there is an attempt to interact with her.
But strangely enough, unhappy babies sometimes do not cry much at all. This is confusing and misleading because one might think that if a baby is unhappy you would know about it by his crying. Researchers such as Antoine Guedeney have found that psychologically healthy babies react to discomfort by yelling with great gusto and outrage. They are then easily comforted, often by the mother’s attempt to offer her breast for a feed. But babies who will go on to experience psychological difficulties do not necessarily cry (or not immediately) when they are subjected to a traumatic experience. They are more inclined to continue whimpering or being distressed, despite all efforts to soothe them. Don’t be duped into thinking that a baby who never cries is psychologically healthy and robust. He might have learned that crying doesn’t help, or he might not have the energy to cry. Vigorous crying is a passionate message from a baby that something is wrong and he needs help. Unhappy babies have very little passion and they don’t have any expectations or illusions that help is going to be forthcoming.