Stress in babies:
How to keep babies calm, happy, and emotionally healthy
© 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Why stress in babies matters
Nobody wants a stressed-out baby. The
stress is contagious, and chronic stress has long-term health consequences. When
babies are exposed to high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, they are
more likely to develop behavior problems and stress-related diseases later in
life (Asok et al 2013; Luby et al 2013). In the worst case scenario, toxic
stress can alter brain growth and shorten the lifespan.
But there is good news for parents
feeling the strain: We can do a lot to protect babies from the effects of toxic
For example, experiments on nonhuman
animals show that infants exposed to lots of nurturing touch are more likely to
develop into stress-resilient adults – even if they were born with risk factors
for stress-related problems (Meaney 2001). And the same seems to be true for human beings.
When Helen Sharp and her colleagues tracked
the development of babies at high risk for developing stress-related problems, the
researchers found evidence for the protective power of physical affection: High-risk
babies developed normally if their mothers gave them many cuddles and caresses
during early infancy (Sharp et al 2012; Sharp et al 2014).
Other research attests to the power of
parental sensitivity and responsiveness – the ability to “read" a baby’s cues
and give him what he needs in a timely way.
For instance, parents who show higher
levels of sensitivity tend to have babies with lower baseline cortisol levels
(Blair et al 2006). And it's the infants born with “difficult," easily-distressed temperaments that seem to benefit the most. In studies tracking children over the long term, such
babies have ended up with better outcomes than their more laid-back peers – if they were raised by sensitive,
responsive parents (Stright et al 2008; Pluess and Belsky 2010).
So parenting makes a
difference. But how does it work? And what can parents do to become more
attuned, stress-savvy caregivers? Here are some evidence-based pointers.
1. Offer lots of physical affection...but pay attention to what your baby likes
above, nurturing touch appears to protect babies from harmful stress, and
researchers think they know why.
Affectionate physical contact triggers the
release of several stress-busting chemicals in the brain, including oxytocin
(the so-called “love hormone") and endogenous opioids (natural painkillers).
These have a calming effect, and help switch off the production of cortisol. As
a result, there is less physiological wear-and-tear on the body, and the brain
is more likely to develop a long-term pattern of resilience to stress.
But there is
something crucial to keep in mind: Touch
can also be irritating, creepy, or overwhelming.
instance, experiments suggest that many young babies don’t like the sensation
of a light caress (Kida and Shinohara 2013). They might prefer a more firm sort
also find it stressful to be touched in isolation, outside the context of a friendly,
multi-sensory interaction. In experiments on newborns, infants showed a drop in cortisol levels when they were stroked by a caregiver who
rocked them, made eye contact, and spoke soothingly. But when they were stroked
in silence --without rocking or eye contact – these babies experienced a
cortisol surge (White-Traut et al
So we should
adapt our approach to the preferences of the baby, and sometimes that means
backing off altogether. Occasionally
babies feel over-stimulated and need to withdraw, and we can cause stress if we
don’t respect their wishes. In one study, researchers watched mothers and
infants as they played together, and noted whether or not mothers heeded their
babies’ signals about being touched. Babies who received unwanted stimulation had higher
cortisol levels (Feldman et al 2010).
2. Think like a baby
It’s hard to
imagine. When is the last time you found yourself vulnerable, dependent,
immobilized, and unable to communicate with language?
But the better you understand
your baby’s perspective, the better your chances of minimizing stress.
take bath time. Do you prepare everything first, and then undress the baby just
before putting him in the water? Or do you undress the baby first, and make him
wait for his bath?
and Lauren Philbrook (2012) note what might go wrong in the latter case: The
parent tries to hold the baby in one arm while she readies the bath with the
other, but the baby is cold. So he cries and squirms, making it hard for his
mother to hold onto him. When the water is ready, she releases the baby
awkwardly, plunking him in the water more abruptly than she intended. The water
feels particularly warm against the baby’s skin, and he screams in outrage.
misstep – allowing the baby to get cold– might lead to a lot of unnecessary
strife for everyone. And, say Hane and Philbrook, little episodes like this
might push families in the wrong direction. Because the baby seems so
temperamental and intolerant of change, the parent decides to handle these
situations by becoming more brusque and controlling. It’s going to be miserable, so why not get it over with quickly? But
forcing the matter ensures that the encounter will be stressful, and creates a vicious
circle of bad feelings--one calculated to turn childcare into a series of
then, we can avert a whole cascade of negative effects by figuring out what
sets our babies off, and changing our tactics. If your baby’s irritation has
you stumped, try asking an experienced helper for advice. You might be too
stressed to see things objectively.
3. Don’t underestimate your baby’s
ability to read – and mirror – your negative emotions.
When you’re distracted,
upset, or depressed, you might think your baby doesn’t notice. But research
that babies – even newborns -- get distressed when their caregivers become
(Yoo and Reeb-Sutherland 2013). By 6 months, many babies can distinguish
between happy and angry body language (Zeiber et al 2013), and they seem to be very
sensitive to “background" hostility:
Babies exposed to the sights or sounds of angry, bickering adults are more
likely to develop abnormal stress response systems (Towe-Goodman et al 2012; Graham
et al 2013).
compelling experiment hints that babies can tell when we feel stressed, even
when it’s about something that doesn’t concern them. Researchers temporarily
separated mothers from their infants and then asked the mothers to perform a
public speaking task. Some mothers completed a version of the task that was particularly
stressful; others were assigned an easier job.
When the mothers were
reunited with the babies, the researchers measured everyone’s stress responses.
The results? Infants in the high-stress condition mirrored their mothers’
stress reactivity, paralleling changes in heart rate and showing more anxiety
towards other people (Waters et al 2014). The takeaway lesson may be this: Managing
your own stress – by seeking social support or other remedies – could make an
important difference to your baby’s behavior and well-being.
4. Engage your baby in one-on-one
communication, but don't force it.
Like physical affection,
friendly talk and sympathetic body language can trigger our brains to release
“feel good" chemicals, like oxytocin.
Moreover, studies reveal
that babies benefit when we treat them as conversation partners--acknowledging their
feelings, responding to their implied questions, and offering them support when
they are distressed. Not only do these tactics teach babies cope with their
negative emotions, they also help babies develop secure, healthy attachment
But once again, we need to
be careful about the context. Just as babies can become stressed by physical touch,
they can be overwhelmed by face-to-face communication.
your face is too close,
or your baby has simply had enough “conversation," she will let you
know. She may duck or put her hands over her face. She may try to turn
her head and
look away (Beebe et al 2010).
5. Walk off stress.
It’s old wisdom supported by recent
science: Babies like to be carried around, and seem to find it more soothing
than being held by a person who doesn’t move. In a series of experiments,
researchers found that infants experienced slower heart rates, reduced body
movement, and reduced crying when they were held by an adult who was walking
from place to place (Esposito et al 2013).
6. Make yourself emotionally available at bedtime.
For most of human history,
our ancestors slept close to their babies, and an infant’s survival depended on
staying near. So it shouldn’t surprise us that babies find it stressful to be
left alone in the dark.
Indeed, there is evidence that babies experience
elevated cortisol levels in this situation – even if they have been “trained"
to sleep in their own rooms, and remain relatively quiet (Middlemiss et al 2011).
But our nighttime sleeping arrangements
don’t just affect the stress babies feel at night. They also may affect how
babies handle stress at other times. For instance, when researchers subjected
12-month-old babies to a social stressor – the so-called “strange situation" –
they found that infants varied depending on their personal histories. Babies
who had spent more weeks “rooming in" with their parents experienced less cortisol
reactivity, even after controlling for other factors, like parental sensitivity
and attachment security (Beijers et al 2013).
Another study reports that 5-week-old
infants with a history of co-sleeping showed evidence of greater calm. While
co-sleeping history had no apparent effect on the babies’ responses to a
painful vaccination, it was linked with less cortisol reactivity during bath
time (Tollenaar et al 2012).
So being physically close at night may
help babies regulate their stress responses throughout the day. But physical
proximity isn’t the whole story. Some researchers argue that the crucial
ingredient is emotional availability at bedtime – a characteristic that depends
on a variety of behaviors. Do you use quiet, soothing routines to help your
baby fall asleep at night? Do you avoid initiating social interactions with
your baby as she approaches sleep? Is your manner free of any hostility or
irritation? Do you respond promptly (within a minute) when your baby cries out
When Lauren Philbrook and her
colleagues observed the normal nighttime routines of families with young
babies, they found that mothers who were rated as highly “emotionally available"
were more likely to have babies with low nighttime cortisol levels. In addition,
these babies were also more likely to develop normal, healthy patterns of
hormonal change over the 24-hour day (Philbrook et al 2014).
For more evidence-based information about infants, see my collection of Parenting Science articles about babies.
To read more about the effects of parenting on a child's
developing stress response system, see my Parenting Science article, "The health benefits of sensitive, responsive
parenting" as well as my blog posts, "Positive parenting protects kids from brain-shrinking
stress?" and "Can a mother's touch reverse the effects of prenatal
In addition, if you know a highly reactive or "difficult" baby, be
sure to read my post discussing the importance of alleviating stress in babies with very sensitive
For a discussion of cultural biases against taking babies' distress
seriously, see my blog post, "Babies can't remember is bunk," and my editorial
about the way people often dismiss stress in babies as fussiness.
And to access my collection of Parenting Science articles about babies,
including evidence-based information about excessive infant crying, click
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Content of "Stress in Babies" last modified 5/2015
Portions of the text are derived from an earlier article by the same title.
Image of father and infant copyright Katie Tegtmeyer / flickr
Image of baby and adult hands copyright Clarence Goss / wikimedia commons
Image of baby massage copyright arekmalang / istock
Image of mother and son by Ken Hammond / USDA
Image of baby in closeup by Kenny Louie / wikimedia commons