We’ve all got stress - and this goes for babies too. It may not be the result of bills to pay or problems with love - but it’s there waiting to rear its ugly head. Of course all stress isn’t bad. In fact, it’s thanks to stress that things get done. But where toxic stress is concerned - we need to stop it in its tracks.
When a human being experiences stress, the brain releases cortisol into the blood stream. Infants routinely exposed to high levels of this hormone may suffer negative impacts. In babies, elevated cortisol levels are associated with permanent brain changes. These can lead to behavioral issues, anxiety and even stress-related diseases such as high blood pressure and heart problems in later life.
A parent’s job is to provide their baby with the necessities of life while keeping them safe, comfortable and loved. Knowing the signs of stress fall under this umbrella of parental care. A baby exhibiting symptoms like: inconsolable crying, avoiding eye contact, arching their back, spreading their fingers wide, sneezing and/or yawning often and rapid breathing may be stressed.
Soothing a baby during stressful times is yet another parental duty. This may include simply rocking or cuddling them or something more particular like swaddling them or placing their hands together.
It's also a parent's responsibility to be aware of the causes of infant stress - and they aren’t as straightforward as some may believe. Continue reading for 15 odd things that stress a baby out.
15 Party Poopers
As a newborn’s nervous system slowly develops - and take note here: it won’t be fully developed until they reach their first birthday - over-stimulation can occur at the drop of a hat. Infants can be real party-poopers - both in the literal and metaphorical sense. When there are too many new faces to take in followed by requests to be held by grabby strangers - this can easily equate to sensory overload in a new baby.
Parents should closely monitor their baby’s reactions - are they arching their back, crying constantly, and/or refusing to look people in the face? These cues suggest the baby may be stressed out and it’s essential that parents respect this message. Of course, any action taken may be met with some derision and eye-rolling. Don’t be surprised if words like over-protective and molly-coddling get tossed around. Ignore it - it’s a parent’s job to keep baby safe and secure as well as stress-free. The baby takes priority - no one else.
14 The Perfect Plaything
Finding the perfect toy for baby’s particular stage can be a delicate dance of trial and error. The ideal toy will be one that captures their attention and engages them without frustrating them or causing any undue stress. Unfortunately, this will change as baby’s cognitive abilities as well as motor skills develop at lightning speed.
When introducing baby to an unfamiliar toy, be sure to do so when they are in a good mood, well-rested and well-fed. Then carefully gauge their reaction in order to ensure it is not too advanced for them and doesn’t end up causing more frustration than entertainment.
For babies that are sensitive to sound - noisy bells and whistles as well as electronic gadgets with sound effects can assault precious ears - baby’s and parents alike! Toys typically well-received by infants include any with bold patterns and/or color combinations, various textures and even gentle sounds like squeaking, crinkling and jingling.
13 An Isolated Touch
For parents hoping to spend some quality time with baby, keep in mind that they tend to appreciate a loving touch within the framework of a multi-sensory and loving interaction. In layman’s terms, this means gently touch and stroke them - however ensure to make eye contact while also talking to them in a soothing tone. Babies who are touched within a loving interaction often experience a marked decrease in cortisol levels (the stress hormone).
However, babies who are touched or stroked in silence - without the larger framework of an interaction which may include eye contact and vocalizing tend to undergo a significant cortisol surge.
Remember that there are some babies out there who eschew touch no matter the context. If this is the case, then a parent will need to come up with other ways to bond and share quality time. Even babies who do appreciate some loving cuddles may not be interested if they are over stimulated and require some down time.
12 Scary Characters
Loving a character from tv or a book doesn’t necessarily translate into a joyous reaction when said character is suddenly looming in front of a child - larger than life. Typically occurring in toddlers, many babies display a fear of clowns, mascots, Santa Claus and even Disney characters they normally love. This is important for parents to keep in mind when planning a visit to a theme park, parade or party and at Halloween.
Believe it or not, it’s actually okay for children to react this way - it is generally a normal part of child development. In most cases, a baby will outgrow this fear but in some cases they will not. How a parent handles their baby’s fear may determine how soon and/or whether they outgrow it or not.
- Never force a baby when they are afraid - this can be extremely traumatizing.
Don’t laugh or yell at them - instead be supportive.
- Take a background approach - a parent can ensure their child feels safe and secure while watching from a distance.
- Don't make the situation such a big deal - parents can even high five or hug the "scary" character to show their baby that everything is fine.
11 Light As A Feather
From a general viewpoint, infants younger than six months tend to show a distinct preference for a firmer touch or snuggle as opposed to a light-as-a-feather caress. In a series of controlled experiments, infants were gently stroked with soft fabric such as velvet and again with something firmer like a smooth and rounded piece of wood. The babies involved underwent brain monitoring during the process and the results were clear. While babies six months and older appeared to enjoy the softer stroking, the younger infants preferred the firmer caress.
Scientists continue to be baffled by these results although they do know it is connected to brain development and the way the nervous system processes touch. The general theory is that softer touch just does not register on babies that young. Although, in some specific cases a softer touch does register but babies do not react positively. In fact, in these situations, a softer caress actually brings out a stress reaction in sensitive babies.
10 Deal With It
Feeling stress is a normal and healthy human emotion. How a parent deals with stress is crucial as babies will learn how to manage their future stress based on their example. Also, research supports the fact that any baby picking up on negative emotions from their caregiver will absorb these feelings and respond in similar fashion.
A parent’s stress can cause emotional damage in other ways as well. According to Ohio pediatric expert Sarah A. Klein, PhD. “(Stress) affects parents’ well-being. Stressed parents are less responsive to their infants’ cues, and that less-sensitive caregiving is stressful to babies.”
Prolonged exposure to the stress hormone cortisol in a baby can negatively impact their brain development. This is why parents should focus on ridding their lives of certain stressors and find healthy ways of dealing with what is left. Positive stress management will benefit the entire family.
9 Lost In Translation
Newborns are hardwired to communicate. Despite not speaking or understanding all that much just yet - it is through sound, eye contact and touch that they are first introduced to the concept of communicating with others. And this inevitably leads to trust and the building of relationships that will last a lifetime.
If a baby is given the silent treatment or left to cry for a prolonged period, it can negatively affect their brain development. For infants who are regularly ignored, they may come to feel anxiety and distrust as typical and everyday emotions. The damage that this can cause in most cases is irreparable and will reveal itself in the future when these babies become adults who are inflexible, self-centered and anxious.
A baby's brain is developing at warp speed - and the stress hormone cortisol can hinder this growth. Parents need to ensure they are responsive to their baby's needs by listening, respecting and communicating with them. In these ways, a baby will come to know they are loved, cared for and of course, never alone.
8 No Gain From Pain
While easy going babies may have no trouble whatsoever in tolerating some levels of mild discomfort - others may not be so laissez-faire. Dealing with a heavy diaper, hunger pangs, being overly tired, pain from gas or teething can result in some serious stress for a baby. That’s why it’s important for parents to get to know their baby and be proactive before stress sinks its claws in.
It’ll take some time to learn to decipher a baby’s cues but it will be worth it in the end. Once a parent learns what their baby likes, dislikes and considers intolerable, they can take matters into their own hands to ensure their baby’s life is as carefree as possible.
A completely stress-free existence is not realistic - for adult and baby alike. And in the right doses, stress has its benefits. Which is why parents shouldn’t beat themselves up about it. This is where soothing comes into play - from cuddling and singing (although these can both cause stress in highly sensitive infants!) to stories and warm baths.
7 Keep It Down
The world outside the womb can be a noisy place. And while constant exposure to harmful noise can damage an infant’s ears, even sound not considered to be physically damaging can still be unsettling to more sensitive babies. In certain situations, a siren, noisy traffic, a crowded room full of voices, even a blaring radio or tv can result in psychological stress.
We’re not advising parents to keep their baby in a hermetically sealed room - as it’s actually good for babies to get used to some background noise. That said, we are hoping to raise awareness about possible sensitivities in babies as well as signs of stress. When it comes to babies affected by noise, all parents can really do is try to limit their exposure any way they can.
Genetics may be working their magic here - if mom or dad is hypersensitive to sound, then this opens the possibility of the apple not falling far from the tree. Fortunately, in most cases this is something the baby will outgrow as their brain develops. And while it is important for baby to get used to some level of noise, this can be done through a gradual process.
6 Let 'Em Be
Some babies just don’t want to be held. And we’re not talking about guests eager to get their mitts on this new little bundle - some babies don’t want to be held period. And that includes by their very own parents. For certain sensitive suzies, being swaddled or just snuggled up close can be constrictive and off-putting. In this case, it’s a parent’s responsibility to find other ways to soothe a sensitive baby. But here are a few alternative ideas: gently stroke a baby as they lay flat on their back, play soft music, and/or sing quietly.
Soothing a fussy baby can be a complicated puzzle to solve. It’s a good idea to rule out the fact that they are just overly tired, hungry and/or stimulated as this can definitely be the underlying issue as to why they don’t want to be held.
Whatever the case, it’s important that parents don’t blame themselves or their baby. And be wary of comparing the situation to others. As long as a parent ensures their baby’s basic needs are being met, learns to read their cues, respect their needs and figure out what works - everything else will just fall into place.
5 Where Mom At?
Because babies have no clear concept of time, when they don’t see their caregiver, they believe them to be gone. And while this separation anxiety can be unsettling to them, it is a normal part of child development. In order to alleviate the amount of stress an infant experiences, here are several helpful tips for parents:
- Take plenty of time to shop around for a babysitter or daycare that they are comfortable with. The more nervous a parent is about leaving their baby, the more stressed a baby will be.
- Practice being apart from baby before it’s actually necessary. This will allow them to get used to new people and an unfamiliar routine.
- Be calm and consistent when leaving baby and avoid long and teary goodbyes.
- Distraction can be a godsend so ensure the caregiver has activities or objects on hand that baby enjoys.
The good news is that babies adjust quickly and easily to new people. Even if they cry and seem stressed at first, it won’t take them long to get past it.
4 Facts About Arguments
While infants most definitely are helpless, don’t make the mistake in believing they are also oblivious. So they may not understand specific words, they can still pick up on tone. And when babies hear upset voices, loud noises and/or witness angry facial expressions, this can be frightening for them and also lead to emotional stress.
In fact, parents who argue or fight in the vicinity of their baby may actually be causing them brain damage. According to researchers, babies that come from conflict-filled homes display higher stress levels when exposed to angry vocal tones compared to babies from drama-free families. If exposed to angry voices, even when asleep, this can affect the way a baby processes various vocal tones.
Babies exposed to consistent conflict tend to grow up to become anxious adults who have trouble coping with day-to-day stress. They will also more likely have trouble regulating their emotional responses and run the risk of suffering from mood disorders.
3 No Rough Housing
Despite the fact that babies are generally solid and resilient little beings, they are still quite fragile and tend to respond better to a more gentle touch. Consistently rough or abrupt treatment of a baby can definitely be a source of stress. Keep this in mind whenever handling an infant. It’s important to cradle their heads and necks and support them carefully whenever holding, lifting and/or moving them or laying them down.
And don’t forget about their soft spots when washing them or touching their head. Parents should also remain cognizant of their own feelings and emotions and not handle their baby if they are upset, angry, stressed or have been drinking.
It is never okay to rough house with an infant. Extremely rough movements with a baby can result in Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). It is child abuse and can lead to devastating, life-long injuries such as whiplash, trauma and brain injury - even death.
2 Hot And Cold
Temperature extremes affect infants and can cause health issues more drastically than they would an older child. This is because they are incapable of regulating their body temperature like an older child or adult can. And not only can this lead to higher stress levels in an infant - but it can quickly prove fatal as well.
Babies run a much higher risk of over-heating than anyone else. The same goes for cold - infants and young children can quickly develop a low-body temperature leading to hypothermia and abnormal heart beats. Newborns are especially prone to hypothermia because of their large body surface area, small amount of body fat and inability to shiver.
Any prolonged discomfort (including temperature extremes) experienced by an infant can leave them feeling stressed. It’s important to ensure that babies are properly attired for the climate and weather to which they will be exposed. Dress them in layers and always have a blanket on hand.
1 Changing Things Up
When welcoming a new baby into the family fold, rhythm and predictability can help parents get a better handle on this new gig - it will bring a sense of purpose and order to long, drawn-out days. However, the benefits are two-fold as they will also help foster a sense of safety and security in a baby.
Routine keeps an infant content as they come to know what to expect and look forward to. Especially in cases of extremely sensitive or high needs babies, a break in this anticipated routine can result in some serious stress.
For parents hoping to establish some predictability in their lives, make sure to allow baby to take the lead and follow their cues. Let baby lay the foundation for sleeping and eating schedules and then include play time, bath time and so forth. Not every baby is the same so stick with whatever works best.
Sources: ParentingScience.com, CanadianFamily.ca, TodaysParent.com, KidsHealth.org, TheChildren.com, MedicalDaily.com, WalkingOnTravels.com, WebMD.com, WhatToExpect.com, PsychologyToday.com, Parents.com