Stress is a word that people hear thrown around a lot these days. People often casually say how stressed they are, and certainly the fast pace of life, along with so much that people try to pack into it, can often feel a bit much. But what does this word really mean? The dictionary tells us that stress is "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances".
This could be from family, friends, jobs or school. But it could also be tension within one's self, where there is conflict between what a person thinks they should be capable of doing, compared to what they can actually achieve.
But how does this relate to babies? They don’t have jobs or school to worry about. The only thing they really should be achieving is sleeping, eating and looking cute, so how stressful can being a baby be?
Stress can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed by something. And what could be more overwhelming than leaving the safety of the womb and entering the noisy, bright world?
Children and babies can be affected by stress whenever something new or different happens in their lives. It is the reaction to that insecurity of a change in routing; of not knowing what is happening or why. But parents don’t often hear a baby shouting ‘I’m so stressed!’ So what happens when the baby or young child is too stressed?
20 I'll Do Anything, Just Please Sleep!
Sleep is vital for anyone but particularly important for your baby or toddler. We need sleep to process what has happened during the day, and babies use this time to absorb what they have learnt. Sleep also gives the body time to rejuvenate, repair and improve memory. Even if your baby doesn’t sleep through the night, they will probably naturally be getting all the sleep they need in a 24 hour period. The Sleep Foundation recommends that newborn - 3 months get 14 to 17 hours, dropping to 12 to 15 hours for 4-11 months and down again to 11-14 hours for 1-2 years. So even if your baby doesn’t sleep in a big block, they will still probably get their 14 hours throughout the day.
But what happens if your baby is stressed?
A common reaction to being stressed for all ages is to find sleeping difficult. This may range from finding it difficult to fall asleep, to only sleeping for very short periods. This is a sleep problem that occurs when a child has difficulty falling asleep, remaining asleep, and/or awakens unusually early in the morning.
In extreme cases, this may become such a problem that it is actually categorised as insomnia.Insomnia can be short-term due to stress, pain, or a medical or psychiatric condition. However, if the underlying cause is not addressed, this can become a long-term issue.
19 Why Aren't You Eating?
When you’re upset do you find that your appetite sometimes disappears? Or maybe you go the other way and just can’t stop eating? Either way is an emotional response to food. We eat to fuel our bodies and the foods we eat should provide us with a range of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, water, fat, carbohydrates, fibre, and protein. For babies, milk is the substance that provides everything needed for good growth, both mentally and physically.
As adults we should know that eating too little is bad for us, we do not get the energy required to power our bodies and minds and develop as we should. We should also know that if we eat too much, or have a poor or unbalanced diet, that that is also unhealthy and can result in weight gain and poor development.
Personally, if I am having a bad day I’ll get home and reach for the biscuit tin because that sugar rush makes me feel good in the short term. Somewhere along the way, I have learned to stress eat, associating food with feeling less stressed.
However, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, states that although stress actually reduces appetite, 5-7-year-old children tend to eat more when they’re sad.
Emotional overeating is learned behaviour, perhaps because parents give sweet treats as rewards, or to make children feel better. So a change in feeding may be an indicator that your baby is stressed.
18 Sad And Clingy
Is your baby usually quite happy to be passed around for cuddles? Are they one of those beautiful smiley babies that everyone just has to hold? Maybe they are just happy sleeping anywhere and on anyone?
But maybe one day your baby just cries if you put them down. Maybe they cry every time you attempt to hand them over for cuddles. Even the father may not be good enough or the favourite sibling is no longer acceptable to them. These changes in mood can be indicators that your baby is stressed.
The person a baby naturally goes to for comfort is its mother. After all, the baby has been growing inside you for 9 months and it recognises your smell, your sound, even your heartbeat. So if your baby is feeling overwhelmed, with too many changes of sounds and smells and sights, they will always gravitate back to the safe and familiar person. The one thing that they have always known and recognised - mum.
Whilst being clingy can be frustrating if you have chores to do or just want to have a bath even, it is just your baby’s way of saying they need some familiarity and security.
17 Angry And Withdrawn
Similarly, your baby’s way of coping with too much stimulation may be to try to shut it out. Imagine a very busy house. There may be other children playing and chatting, perhaps loudly. Maybe there is an argument going on between them. The TV may be on, whilst next door in the kitchen someone else is singing along to a radio whilst clattering the pots and pans about and cooking something particularly pungent.
If you are feeling a bit overstimulated anyway, then this amount of sound, smell and activity may just be too much for you to cope with. What would you do in this situation? Walk away and find somewhere quiet.
But of course, a baby can’t really tell you the problem or walk away. So your baby may develop an angry cry and it may seem that whatever you do to try to appease him does not work.
Or he may just become extremely quiet, withdrawing from any kind of interaction or social attempt. So if your baby suddenly changes personality and seems very angry, try to just strip back to the basics - you, him and a reassuring cuddle. Withdraw from the stimulation and give him time to adjust to his new world.
16 Please Look At Me!
One of my favourite phrases is ‘The eyes are the windows to the soul’. You can tell so much about someone when you look deep into their eyes. Think about all the ways we use this type of communication. Think of the lovers gazing deep into each other's eyes, compared to the boxers eyeballing each other before a fight.
I don’t know how many times I have been ‘having a serious talk’ with one of my children when I’ve realised that they’re gazing in the opposite direction and I’ve said those immortal mom words
‘look at me when I’m talking to you’
What I really want to see is that they are concentrating on what I am saying, and I can tell by their eyes if they understand and how they feel about it. Sometimes I know that they are not looking at me because they are so angry and don’t want me to see, or that they are really upset and are trying to hide it. Eye contact is so important to humans because it facilitates accurate communication.
Now imagine you are stressed and feel like you just need some quiet time. You probably don’t want to be looking into someone else’s eyes. You probably want to look away. Lack of eye contact can be an indicator of stress in your baby or toddler.
15 Crying And Tantrums
Being a baby or a toddler can be incredibly stressful due to the limitations of your communication skills. Imagine being really hungry but not really being able to tell anyone. Or imagine that you are really tired and want to sleep but mom is insisting that you need to go the shop. Or imagine that you have almost finished your game and just need two minutes but mom is packing it away and you can’t explain what you want.
All of these frustrations can culminate in crying or tantrums. Now hopefully as an adult, you haven’t had many tantrums at work, but I can honestly say that sometimes my job is so stressful and frustrating that it has made me cry, particularly when I am being told by my boss to do something for no apparent reason.
Now take that back to baby level.
Mom (the boss) is telling you what to do and you don’t like it. So we have the solution: tantrum. These can range from screaming, kicking and hitting to crying and endless whining.
Whilst tantrums are perfectly normal and very common in children aged 1 to 3, this can be an indicator of stress or unhappiness and it is a sign that your baby or toddler needs some strategies to help cope.
14 Fears And Phobias
‘There’s a monster under your bed, and if you don’t go to sleep, he’ll come out and get you’.
Even now I’m a little wary of the big dark space under my bed. It’s not somewhere I like to explore, and if I heard a weird noise in the night I certainly wouldn’t bend down to check under there! This is not even something I was told regularly as a little girl, just a general statement that I have heard through media and friends. And yet I have a slight fear of the unknown under-bed area.
Imagine now all the new things that a baby or a toddler encounters in just the first few years of their life. New and unidentifiable noises, being left alone or with other people. Being left with strangers at childminders or nurseries. Toilet training, baths, changes of beds. Maybe a serious family event such as death or injury.
It’s easy to understand how new things might be perceived by a baby as scary things, and once you have it in your mind that something is scary, it is hard to remove that idea.
Many parents may underestimate the number of things that actually do stress and therefore scare their child. Fears of real things such as snakes, spiders and heights can be quite common, whilst children are also scared of the unknown; ghosts and monsters.
Some fears are just a natural stage of development and will ease naturally, but beware the underlying stress that is causing these issues.
13 Nightmares And Terrors
When I was young I had a recurring nightmare that I was eating ice cream on a beach when a monster came out of the sea and ate me. I have no idea what caused this, but it is likely that there was some kind of change or stress that triggered my nightmare.
The Sleep in America poll found that 3% of preschool and school-aged children experienced frequent nightmares.
Nightmares are frightening dreams that occur during REM sleep and awaken a child. They usually occur in the later part of the night. Most children will experience a nightmare as a subconscious reaction to a stressful event, and whilst they are upsetting some comfort, and perhaps a nightlight will help
Sleep terrors are slightly different in that they occur early in the night and may cause the child to actually scream out. The child doesn’t wake up although they may seem distressed. Increasing sleeping hours may help here as they are often caused by too little, or too irregular sleep schedules.
So if your little one is waking with nightmares or screaming in their sleep, this may be an indicator of underlying stress.
12 Physical Ailments
Some babies and toddlers just naturally catch everything that is going around. You may find particularly that if your little one attends any kind of daycare, he may be prone to catching all the season’s viruses. Great.
However, there are some ailments that can be linked to stress and not just to all the natural colds and cases of flu going around at any given moment.
Headaches and tummy aches are the two most common ailments linked to stress in children.
Whilst a toddler may comment that their head hurts and may be seen holding or rubbing it, a baby may not give you such obvious clues. Look out for crying when you have dealt with the usual round of food, nappies etc, and rubbing his head. Headaches in babies are surprisingly common and most are tension-headaches, like a constant ache on both sides of your head. Your baby may feel pressure behind the eyes, causing him to close his eyes or tight neck muscles.
Tummy aches are again, very common in small children with delicate and developing digestive systems. If your child feels sick, is sick or has diarrhoea, this could be caused by stress.
11 Anxiety Causes All Kinds Of Symptoms
Sometimes, those under a lot of stress can display physical symptoms without any medical cause being identified. Pain, fatigue or even shortness of breath or feeling very weak have been reported and are believed to be caused by stress.
Performers often report feeling nauseous or having that feeling of butterflies in their tummy before a big show, and this is a similar thing. The feeling of being engulfed by life can also cause these feelings, although medically there is nothing wrong.
Again, as with emotional eating, this can be a learned behaviour. If your toddler or baby knows that they will get huge sympathy, maybe some treats or special time with a parent when they feel poorly, they may ‘pretend’ to be ill, or subconsciously even believe they are.
Anxiety can play a role in Somatic Symptom Disorder, which is characterized by pain, nausea, weakness or dizziness with no apparent physical cause. But with this disorder your reaction to the symptoms may be abnormal, causing major emotional distress and even problems with day to day functioning.
So if your toddler constantly complains of pains for seemingly no reason, try to work out why and treat the underlying problem, rather than showering your little one with treats automatically to ‘make them feel better’.
10 Anxious Tics
When we feel overrun by the world we may develop an anxious tic, which is an uncontrolled sudden, repetitive movement or sound. It is difficult to control and can involve movement and/or sound.
Vocal tics can include any sound ranging from constant coughing and throat clearing to sniffing, hissing or barking. More complex vocal tics involve actual speech rather than just sounds, such as calling out and yelling. It may also include making animal sounds or even repeating certain words and phrases.
Motor tics are involuntary and repetitive movement, including eye blinking, lip biting, nose wrinkling or head twitching. You may find your child obsessively shrugging their shoulders or even making faces or grimacing. On a more complex level, as with vocal tics, the child may start mimicking others, smelling everything, kicking, skipping or jumping.
Although it may feel like your child is trying to annoy you, they may not even be aware they are doing it and if you notice this happening, try to find out what is making them feel stressed.
Other anxious tics can include sleep talking, when your child talks, laughs or burbles in their sleep but has no memory of it the next day. Stress can also cause sleepwalking, where the child goes for a stroll but is still asleep and again has no memory. If this starts to happen, ensure your home is safe and secure at nights, as you don’t want your toddler wandering to the local shop at 2 am!
9 Habitual Behavior
I’m sure everyone has some kind of habit that they just can’t break, or find so comforting that they don’t want to break.
Habits can be very comforting for children and can be an excellent way of self-calming or soothing.
For instance, as toddlers leave behind breastfeeding or bottles, you may find they start to suck something else, maybe their thumb, or a favourite cloth or teddy. Toddlers may become inseparable from their pacifier. But not all habits are bad; sucking lowers the heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels, leaving your baby or toddler calmer and happier.
Other common habits are not all so pleasant; you may find you have a nail-biter or nose picker on your hands. Children may chew their lips, the insides of their cheeks or other objects such as clothing or crayons. If they have longer hair you may find children obsessively sucking it, twirling it around fingers or pulling or tugging at it.
Some children may even clench their jaws or grind their teeth, sometimes so strongly that you can hear it. In most cases teeth grinding doesn’t cause any damage to your children’s teeth, but, as with all other habits, if you find it irritating or frustrating then find the underlying cause and try to break it that way.
8 There's Something Icky In The Diaper
Nappies can be bad at the best of times. You get a whiff of that bottom and your heart sinks slightly. You quickly calculate whether there is someone else around who could tackle the problem for you, such as an unsuspecting husband, but no. You’re going to have to go in.
Although the contents of a baby’s nappy changes over time and of course are affected by diet and age, you get used to what might be in there at any given stage. If your child is anxious or stressed then the nappy contents might be a good indicator that all is not well.
The digestive system is in a delicate balance, with even the smallest problem causing it to react negatively, leading to a whole range of bowel issues. Stress alters hormones within us, changing the speed of your digestive system and putting pressure on the whole system. Stress also alters water intake to the intestine, thus either slowing the food down or pushing it through too quickly.
The two most common issues are diarrhoea and constipation. If you notice that your little one has become irregular, or just not been for an unusual amount of time, ensure they are drinking enough as they may be constipated, and if left untreated this can become extremely uncomfortable.
On the opposite end of the scale, diarrhoea may be a nasty surprise for you and your child, and equally should be treated to prevent dehydration occurring.
Flatulence is another great side effect of stress, with the body processing foods poorly and leading to gas. Anxious people also tend to swallow more air, for instance, hyperventilating, which lead to excess air in the body.
7 Newly Wet Mattress
Anthony Atala, MD, at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine tells us that there is “no major association between anxiety, stress, and bedwetting.” Martin Scharf, in his book Waking Up Dry: How to End Bedwetting Forever, backs this up, saying that for most kids, bedwetting, or nocturnal enuresis, is simply “a maturational lag,” and is often genetic. A child’s bladder may simply be too small for the amount of urine produced, they may be constipated, or the muscles controlling the bladder are just not yet strong enough.
So why do so many people believe that stress can cause bedwetting?
It is not the actual stress that can cause it, but the behaviours exhibited by the child when under stress.
A stressed child may drink more fluids, including just before bed. They may not remember to go to the toilet before going to sleep. They may reach for the high salt comfort snacks to make them feel better, which in turn makes them thirsty, which in turn means they drink more, perhaps right before bedtime.
So if your older child starts bedwetting, or your younger child is waking up with very wet nappies, check their diet, the timings of their daily drinks and ensure they are getting enough sleep.
6 Parental Stress
We all know that most children love to share. If your child catches a cold, the first person they will probably sneeze all over is you. And as you wipe the snot from your face you just know deep down that in a day’s time you are going to be full of that very same cold. So as you put a brave smile on and administer love and multiple tissues, you know that this will pass (after having infected everyone in the house).
Although you can’t physically ‘catch’ stress, if your children aren’t happy you probably won’t be happy either. If your child starts to exhibit mood swings, changes in eating or sleeping patterns or develops an anxious tic then this will probably start to worry you. And slowly but surely you also become anxious and overwhelmed by the situation.
All these symptoms come back to the parents and you end up with a vicious circle of stress. Your stressed child is looking for an oasis of peace, calm and stability in you. Remember, they are feeling overwhelmed by something and need reassurance. If they look to you and see you worrying and anxious, then they have nothing left to calm them, and the problem is exacerbated. So if your child is stressed, try to stay calm, find the underlying problem and sort it.
5 Unwanted Advice
People like to give advice. They may not know all the ins and outs of a situation, but of course, that will not stop them. You may not even know these people, but they will still feel that it is ok to give advice.
When my son was a baby he caught a fever and the doctor advised me to strip him off and take him for a walk in his pram in the cool winter air. Of course, I followed his advice and set off on a rather chilly February day to reduce the fever. I was obviously wrapped up nice and warm, whilst he was sporting a vest. Well, the advice I was offered that day was insane. Clearly, everyone thought I was deranged and a very bad mother and as I didn’t really feel like explaining my personal situation to a group of strangers, I kept walking. I chose not to listen to those bus stop waiting people or those old ladies in the shop because I knew that they didn’t know the whole story and also, quite frankly, it was none of their business. If your baby is stressed, do the same.
Choose carefully whose advice you listen to. Some people may know your situation and be able to give you good constructive advice. Others may just throw old wives’ tales at you without knowing your any details.
4 Maternal Stress And The Fetal Brain
Finding out you are pregnant can be the happiest feeling. Planned or unplanned, it can bring the happiest emotions as you realise that you will have a gorgeous little person to look after. However, it can also be very stressful. Maybe the baby was unplanned and you aren’t sure how you are going to cope, maybe you worry about financial strain or your relationship status. However you feel, it has been shown in various studies that stress is not good for a pregnant lady.
It has recently been found that stress experienced by women during pregnancy can affect the unborn baby as early as 17 weeks into the pregnancy. Stress has potentially harmful effects on the baby’s brain and development. A
ccording to a study published in ‘Clinical Endocrinology’, maternal stress can even lower the IQ of the unborn child.
This study is the first to show that stress affects the baby at such an early stage in pregnancy.
Whilst there are still some gaps in the research being carried out, it is generally agreed across many studies that the child is at increased risk for having a range of problems, including emotional problems, ADHD, conduct disorder and impaired cognitive development. Whilst many might argue that other factors such as birth weight, gestational age, maternal education, smoking, and alcohol consumption could also be factors in the baby’s development, these studies show that prenatal stress can be even more of a factor than these and even more of a factor than postnatal anxiety and depression.
3 Relationship Trouble
Matthew D. Johnson, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory, Binghamton University, State University of New York:
‘For around 30 years, researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along. Comparing couples with and without children, researchers found that the rate of the decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples. In the event that a pregnancy is unplanned, the parents experience even greater negative impacts on their relationship.’
I think this really sums up parenting. Even though your intentions are great, having a baby puts an enormous pressure on a relationship. Day to day living takes up most of your time, as you discuss who will be looking after the baby when, how you can fit work shifts around childcare, how you will be able to afford all the groceries this month.
Previous evenings sat cuddling on the sofa are replaced by desperate attempts at sleeping between the baby’s feeds.
Having a baby is hard enough, but add that stress to the situation and it becomes much harder. So remember to help each other and support your partner through the rough times.
And always have time for a kiss and a cuddle.
2 Need For Routine
Change is a major factor in stress. Last year we moved house. We uprooted and moved to another town, leaving our home, jobs and schools and starting afresh. I organised everything and knew exactly what was going on, why we were doing everything and what our aims were. But even so, it was massively stressful.
Now imagine if a change like that happens but you are not in charge, aren’t really sure what is going on and don’t understand why any of this is happening.
This is how babies and toddlers feel when any change occurs. To prevent change causing stress, children should have a firm routine. A regular routine allows a child to feel safe and in control. If they are happy and content to tackle the everyday challenges within their routine, then they are more likely to be able to cope when bigger changes occur.
Unpredictable changes such as a parent going away on a trip, or even loss or divorce are hard to cope with at the best of times, but within the context of a safe and regular routine your child is less likely to become stressed and will feel less anxious.
However, whereas you may want to implement a routine to suit your folder for your toddler, you may find that you have to adjust to a baby’s needs.
A baby is not capable of adapting and if her needs aren't met, he may feel as if the world is a place where her needs don't get met, so she has to resort to drama to try to meet them.
1 Family Plans
Is a family important? I think so. When I say family, I mean that group of people who are closest to you, who help you when you need it most. Maybe you have a traditional family with two parents and children, maybe you have a close extended family, or maybe your friends are your family. Whoever these people are, make plans with them.
If you’ve got a stressed baby it is really important to reach out and get help.
Don’t suffer in silence, arrange to get out and see people. Take that time to reinforce your relationships. If your baby feels that there are safe relationships around him, he will feel more secure and therefore less anxious. If your baby sees that you are relaxed and happy, then he will be more relaxed and happy. The family provides a framework of love and support, they are the people who should be teaching your baby the values and attitudes that will get him through life. Parents and family are a child’s first relationship and can provide experiences that create memories for life.
A stressed child can be difficult, but with a relaxing and reassuring home and a good routine, your baby should be relaxed and happy in no time at all.