Stress: A guide for the science-minded parent
© 2008-11 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved
Parents are wired for stress.
Whether the baby is choking or your 8-year old is chasing the dog into dangerous traffic, the effect is the same.
Your body is flooded with stress hormones—adrenaline and the glucocorticoids. Your pulse quickens. You breathe faster.
You are alert and high-strung. Your blood pressure shoots up. Your blood sugar rises, and the blood flow is redirected from non-essential systems—like digestion and repair—to the muscles required for strength and speed.
This is the stress response—your survival kit for coping with crisis. It’s an ancient survival kit, and there is no doubt that our ancestors had plenty of opportunities to use it.
Among modern day, warm-climate hunter-gatherers—people whose life-ways most closely parallel those of our ancestors-infant mortality averages about 23% (Marlowe 2005). Juvenile mortality is about 42% (Marlowe 2005). For chimpanzees—our closest living relatives-mortality rates are even worse (Hill et al 2001).
Throughout human history, infancy and childhood has been a time of great vulnerability. A healthy stress response-in parents and their offspring—was important for survival.
In these pages, you'll find evidence-based articles about
• Techniques for relieving stress
• Pregnancy and stress hormones
• Childbirth and postpartum traumatic stress disorder
• Parenting stress during the newborn phase
• Everyday stress in babies
• Stress experienced by kids in daycare and preschool
• Evidence that daycare stress has lasting effects
• The protective influence of good parenting on those environmental stressors we can't control (like urban crime and poverty)
• Nighttime fears in children
In addition, see my blog post about the long-term health effects of early-life stress. As I note there, very stressful childhoods can have serious health implications--for survivors and their family members later in life. But the research also suggests we can do something about it--even after childhood is over.
Read the details here.
Family stress in perspective
Families living in prosperous, technologically advanced countries face fewer lethal threats. Affluent city dwellers don’t worry that their children will starve or get eaten by predators.
But there are still plenty of stressors—physical and psychological—to go around.
Some are evolutionary “new,” like exposure to high decibel traffic noise, or the fear of losing one’s job.
Other stressors are older than humanity itself. Infants are still helpless at birth. They are still utterly dependent on us for food, shelter and love. When we make decisions about how to care for our babies, the stakes are still high.
And many people feel stressed by ideas and social pressures. Are you a low-status “loser” if you turn down career opportunities in favor of the baby track? Are you failing your children because they must attend daycare? Are your kids growing up too fast? Will you ruin your kids’ economic future if you don’t enroll them in baby genius summer camp?
We can’t eliminate all stress. But understanding the biology of stress—and adopting a cross-cultural perspective on stressors—can be very helpful.
The pages described below highlight recent scientific research on stress during pregnancy, childhood, and the child-rearing years.
Stress and pregnancy
Pregnant women under severe, prolonged stress are more likely to suffer miscarriage, complications, and premature birth. Exposure to high levels of stress hormones in the womb may program the fetal brain to secrete more stress hormones later in life, increasing the risk of adult conditions like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (Sapolsky 2004). Prenatal stress may also cause neurodevelopmental delays in children (Poggi-Davis and Sandman 2006).
But a healthy pregnancy isn’t necessarily stress-free. The stress hormones play an important role in fetal development. They may also prepare a woman’s brain for motherhood. Read more about
stress hormones during pregnancy.
Everybody knows that childbirth is stressful. What’s more surprising is the way that
childbirth stress can influence the parent’s postpartum experience.
Newborns can be a source of great joy and delight. But caring for them is notoriously stressful. This article discusses
the causes of postpartum stress, and what parents can do to cope.
Parents face a variety of stressors—-sleep restriction, family conflicts, job stress, deadline pressures, housekeeping overload. See these research-inspired
tips for coping with everyday stressors
Sleep problems and stress
Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you tired. It interferes with the natural pattern of stress hormone production.
Ordinarily, glucocorticoid stress hormones peak in the morning and decline throughout the day. Glucocorticoids diminish to their lowest levels during deep sleep.
If you skip deep sleep, several changes happen. Your body continues to produce glucocorticoids hormones throughout the night (VanReeth et al 2000). And the daily pattern of hormone production shifts. Glucocorticoids increase in the afternoon and evening (Spiegel et al 2003). You also secrete less melatonin--the hormone of sleep.
These changes are probably related to that terrible irony—-that sleep restriction makes people have an even tougher time falling asleep. Indeed, these hormonal changes are typically found in depressed people and insomniacs (Rodenback and Hajak 2001; Speigel et al 2003). Sleeplessness also impairs the immune system (Rogers et al 2001) and memory (Yoo et al 2007).
Many people reading these words don’t get enough sleep. To find out if you're one of them, see this guide to
signs of sleep deprivation.
If you are the parent of a newborn or baby, you probably already know that you're sleep deprived. Check out my articles on surviving
newborn sleep patterns
infant sleep problems.
Hill K, Boesch C, Goodall J, Pusey AE, Williams J, Wrangham RW. 2001. Mortality rates among wild chimpanzees. Journal of Human Evolution 40: 437-450.
Marlowe, F. 2005. Hunter-gatherers in human evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 14: 54-67.
Poggi-Davis E and Sandman CA. 2006. Prenatal exposure to stress and stress hormones influences child development. Infants and Young Children 19(3): 246-259.
Rodenback A and Hajak G. 2001. Neuroendrocrine disregulation in primary insomnia. Rev Neurol. (Paris). 157:S57-S61.
Rogers NL, Szuba MP, Staab JP, Evans DL, and Dinges DF. 2001. Neuroimmunologic aspects of sleep and sleep loss. Semin Clin Neuropsychiatry. 6(4):295-307.
Sapolsky RM. 2004. Why zebras don’t get ulcers. Third edition. New York: Henry Holt and company.
Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter E. 2003. [Impact of sleep debt on physiological rhythms] Rev Neurol (Paris) 159(11 Suppl): 6S11-20.
VanReeth O, Weibel L, Spiegel K, Leproult R, Dugovic C, and Maccari S. 2000. Interactions between stress and sleep: From basic research to clinical situations. Sleep Medicine Reviews 4: 201-220.
Yoo SS, Hu PT, Gujar N, Jolesz FA, and Walker MP. 2007. A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Nat Neurosci. 10(3):385-92.
Content last modified 10/11