Most adults I know are at least vaguely familiar with the diagnosis SAD, which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some of us may be personally affected — or know someone who is — by the depressive condition when the winter days start getting shorter and darker. But is the diagnosis reserved for adults alone, or should we be on the lookout for susceptibility to SAD in our children as well; and if so, how young can it start? Do toddlers get Seasonal Affective Disorder? Here's what parents need to know.
NYC-based therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, tells Romper it is definitely possible for even toddlers to be affected by this particular form of depression. "Shorter days, chillier weather, and disruption in schedules can all contribute in some form or another to SAD, even in a toddler," she confirms. "Symptoms include difficulty sleeping (either insomnia or wanting to sleep more often during the day), changes in appetite (either loss of appetite or weight gain due to increase in appetite), anxiety, and continuous feelings of sadness."
But just because it's possible doesn't mean it's likely. According to child psychiatrist Dr. Scot Carroll, it's important to realize that true SAD in toddlers is pretty rare. Carroll explains to Romper that, "There is no formal research on this question, but from my near 20 years of experience as a child psychiatrist, I can only recall a couple of cases total."
More likely, Carroll says, it's lethargy or irritability due to a growth spurt, teething, viral infections, hypothyroidism, or sleep apnea from an enlarged tonsil. "I would spend a lot of time medically evaluating the child before I would consider that SAD is the cause," he tells Romper.
After you've taken your tot in for a medical checkup and are sure he has no physical ailments, it might be time to make some situational changes to improve his quality of life during those reclusive winter months. Hershenson says the needs of a seasonally depressed toddler are not altogether different than those of an adult. Keeping a daily routine can be helpful, and holding to it in the hustle and bustle of the holidays is important. Serving others in some way can be a mood booster as well, so you might consider taking your toddler to visit a nursing home or aging family member. Getting out in the fresh air, playing as actively as possible, and connecting with nature in some way can be great ways to address the void that the winter season often leaves.
While we're on the subject of treatment options, it should go without saying that a toddler should not be put on anti-depressants. Still, there is plenty of room for creativity to alleviate the symptoms, says Sydney Ziverts. A Health and Nutrition Investigator for ConsumerSafety.org, Ziverts affirms Hershenson's suggestions for alleviating the symptoms of SAD and adds a few of her own: Keeping the shades open in the home for natural light, taking a 10-minute walk every day, eating extra fruits and vegetables, and drinking lots of water.
Regardless of whether or not a professional officially diagnoses your toddler with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is not uncommon for a small child to need some extra adjustments in the winter season. Kids thrive best in the darkest time of year when their parents are proactive about exposure to sunlight, maintaining a routine, eating a healthy diet, and getting some outdoor play (however bundled up she'll need to be, and even if it's only for 10 minutes).
Making these changes will likely have to be intentional, but it shouldn't feel like the end of the world either. With some small modifications, you can have hope that your seasonally affected toddler can indeed thrive as you wait for spring.
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