Stress occurs when a person (or any living being) experiences something negative or feels threatened, whether actual or imagined. In the normal course of everyday lives, children and adults have learned ways to manage these stressful factors. Such is not the case for babies.
Infants still haven’t learned ways to cope and will rely on parents and caregivers to help ease stress. And since babies are still incapable, our failure to notice and address it may cause our babies to be in a state of chronic stress, and prolonged exposure to stress has adverse effects on the physical, mental, and emotional development of a child.
This article will discuss what causes stress in babies (or stressors), the signs you need to look out for to know when your baby is stressed, the possible causes and effects, and how to prevent and calm down stressed babies.
Stress in Infancy – an overview
Babies can feel their environment and absorb their surroundings as much as possible. They can feel stressed as early as 3-5 months old, and interestingly enough, several researchers found that infants pick up and absorb the stress of those taking care of them.
But, not all stress is bad. Research shows that the right kind of stress (positive stress) helps boost the performance and resilience of a person.
Stress becomes a problem when it is always present, and the baby or person cannot cope or recover, or when a situation is considered “toxic stress.”
The Stress Cycle
Whether it be an infant, a child, or an adult, we all go through the three stages of the stress cycle. The body must be able to complete the cycle, otherwise, it will have a negative impact on the overall development of the child.
This is important for adults as well since we parents can “pass” the feeling of stress and anxiety to our babies.
The 1st part of the stress cycle is the experience of threat or perceived threat. This is also the 1st stage of stress. In this stage, the body releases hormones to prepare and condition the body for a fight-or-flight response.
For a parent, it is when the mother or the father sees their baby crying – they conceive or interpret it as a threat to the wellbeing of the baby.
In an infant’s case, it equates to any form of discomfort (more about the causes of stress below). This is the stage where cortisol – the stress hormone – and adrenaline are released in the body.
Once the threat is felt, our body then jumps into the 2nd part – the resistance stage – where the body does or tries to do something about the cause of stress.
For parents, it is when they act on it by carrying the baby, feeding, or distracting them when they start crying.
For infants, it is the act of crying itself- babies are trying to communicate – they are letting their parents know that they feel uncomfortable or uneasy.
Afterward, we enter into the 3rd part, also known as the recovery stage. When the body can adapt to stress, it returns to its normal state (the recovery stage). Otherwise, the body is in a constant state of stress (exhaustion stage).
For parents/caregivers, it can be breathing a sigh of relief since the baby stopped crying. For babies, it is the feeling of comfort and security.
When the stage is not completed, the cortisol is not released from the body, which causes chronic stress. For us adults, we know this as “burnout”.
Whether in infants, children, or adults, chronic stress has long-term adverse effects.
What causes stress in babies?
The main causes of stress for infants are the stress felt by the parent or caregiver (as it is passed on to the child) and physical discomfort.
You may have already heard that parents can transfer the stress to their babies or that babies can also feel the stress of the one holding them. But why is this so?
Since infants are trying to learn as much as they can from their surroundings, they observe intently and take in non-verbal cues. One research even found that direct eye contact between a mother and a baby helps them become synchronized with each other’s emotions.
There is still a lack of substantial research trying to explain such a connection. However, based on existing articles, babies can feel if their caregiver or parent is uneasy, emotionally exhausted, or stressed.
In addition, babies get stressed when they feel uncomfortable, either physically or with their surroundings. Kids and adults can communicate and try to remove the stressor present or cope.
On the other hand, infants can’t do that and are very dependent on their parents.
So, when a baby is hungry, tired, sick, or completely uncomfortable, it causes stress and will cry for attention.
What are the signs of stress in babies?
Usually, your cue that your baby is stressed is when they start crying. However, not all babies will keep on crying when stressed. That does not mean they have already learned to self-soothe or are already pacified. It only means that they might be tired from crying and want to conserve energy.
If your baby is showing any of the following signs, it might be an indication that your baby is stressed.
No eye contact
For babies, non-verbal cues are important to communicate and convey emotions to their parents. Since babies observe heavily, when a baby avoids eye contact, it may mean that the baby is preoccupied with something else.
Since crying is the only way for babies to verbally communicate their emotions, crying for a longer period, or crying more often than usual is an indication that your baby is feeling something. It might be caused by stress, discomfort, or an underlying illness.
Change in sleeping and eating habits
Another indication that your baby could be stressed is when you notice that sleeping and eating habits have changed.
The stress hormone cortisol prepares the body for the fight-or-flight mode. It releases a lot of instant threat responses, which disrupt sleep. These responses include increased blood sugar level, rapid breathing, and rapid heart rate.
In addition, cortisol follows a cycle. Cortisol production usually peaks in the morning and drops around midnight. For people (and babies) who experience chronic stress, the cortisol production is too long or too high.
Cortisol also affects digestion and metabolism as it shifts the body’s response to cope up instead of allowing the body to behave normally.
Other signs that your baby might be stressed
If you see your baby doing the following, it may also indicate that your baby is stressed.
- excessive yawning, hiccupping, or sneezing
- uncoordinated/disorganized movements
How stress affects babies
Stress affects the quality of their sleep and hampers or disrupts motor and brain development. Prolonged exposure to toxic stress can severely affect physical and mental wellbeing.
Reason: Since there is an overproduction of cortisol, the body cannot fully recover and cope.
One example is sleep. Experts have emphasized how quality sleep impacts a baby’s brain, body, and motor functions. When a baby is not getting quality sleep or is not getting the number of sleeping hours required, brain development is affected. This includes memory and cognition and emotional regulation.
Since babies are restless, their waking moments become more stressful as their bodies try to cope. Babies will also get cranky, pay less attention to their surroundings, and cry most of the time.
Apart from the lack or irregularity of sleep, cortisol level in the blood affects the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Studies have proven that an increased cortisol level in the blood results in children scoring poorly in spatial skills and mental and motor development. One research even pointed out that stress makes infants cognitively inflexible – stressed infants keep repeating an ineffective behavior while relaxed babies look for other ways and workaround.
Add to this, prolonged exposure to toxic stress results in poor physical health and poor social skills.
How do I prevent stress and calm my baby when stressed?
The good thing is that it is not complicated to ease babies’ stress. Of course, it is easier said than done, but, the steps are quite straightforward. All it takes is patience and understanding.
Cuddle or massage your baby and make eye contact
When you believe that your baby is stressed, help him cope by initiating physical contact: by giving hugs, massages, and establishing eye contact to make both of you attuned to each other’s feelings.
Reason: Babies want physical connection and they crave affection and attention.
Since he has been inside the womb for nine months, the infant was used to the warmth and sound that it was exposed to before he was born.
Living outside the womb, he is exposed to various factors that he still tries to comprehend. He relies on his caregivers to recreate that feeling of security and attachment.
Also, loving touches and gestures release oxytocin, a hormone that reduces the effect of cortisol. In addition, eye contact helps your baby to catch on to your emotions.
Note, however, that if you are feeling stressed, it is ok to step back for a while, breathe then come back to attend to your baby.
Talk to your baby or play sounds that will help him relax
Talking to your baby can make him feel calm, safe, and secure. Likewise, certain sounds (such as the sound of the fan or aircon) and music (such as classical or ambient music) also help reduce stress.
Reason: Babies respond to sounds more positively to the sound they are familiar with. This communication develops into an emotional bond or attachment. As attachment increases, so is the sense of security.
Music is also known to calm babies. Studies have shown that listening relaxes the mind and induces the release of endorphins in the body. Endorphins also improve sleep which then reduces stress.
Movements such as walking and playing
As adolescents and adults, moving helps release the tension caused by stress, thus helping the baby relax and cope.
Reason: studies have shown that physical movements reduce cortisol and induce the release of endorphins which help reduce anxiety and improve mood.
In addition, playing is a good way to divert attention and it makes your baby feel good as it also increases the sense of security and attachment.
How does Breastmilk/Breastfeeding cause or reduce stress?
Have you ever heard that your milk can increase a baby’s immunity? As it turns out, breastmilk also passes a lot of hormones to your baby.
One of these hormones is cortisol. Babies’ intestinal receptors pick up this hormone and send signals to the brain. Research even found that breastfed babies have more cortisol levels in their bloodstream than formula babies.
That is why, in addition to the anxiety that your baby mirrors, your breastmilk can also cause stress in babies, especially if the breastmilk is pumped when you are highly stressed.
However, this does not mean that formula-feeding is better than breastfeeding. The same article states that the cortisol in the breastmilk can act as a trigger to help your baby adapt.
Likewise, breastmilk and breastfeeding also help calm infants. In addition to the physical contact, the hormone oxytocin is also passed on to the baby. This hormone counteracts the effect of cortisol in the body.
Like children and adults, babies experience stress, especially if we cannot help them cope. Our role as a parent or a caregiver is to ensure that we give them the avenue or way to release the tension and cope with stress.
While we cannot control all the stressors surrounding them, we can help limit or manage these factors.
Distinguishing whether a baby is crying just because it is hungry or sleepy vs. crying because of prolonged discomfort is difficult, not to say stressful. Therefore, the most important thing for us is to be aware and be attuned to our babies’ conditions and emotions.
We can do this my constant interaction and observation.
Being physically, mentally, and emotionally aware of a child’s needs and employing the right parenting style ensure that they grow into a healthy, happy, and relaxed baby.