Eva Benmeleh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialization in the 0-5 age range.
Stress isn’t just for adults. Being a growing, learning, developing baby can and should be stressful, but parents don’t need to add to that stress. What sort of stress are babies experiencing right now, and can parents help? Bundoo Child Psychologist Eva Benmeleh explains baby stress.
Bundoo: We know that babies are very sensitive to their caregivers. At what age do they become aware of stress in the household?
Eva Benmeleh: Babies are aware of stress since their first few months of life. Though they may not speak, they read cues from their caregivers to learn the ways of the world. If their caregiver is often curt, snippety, harsh, or not very nurturing or careful when handling the infant, they feel it and understand that the world can be harsh and cold. This affects how they view their self-importance. If treated with verbal, emotional, or physical abuse, the baby will learn that he or she is not worthy of love and care. If there is constant stress in the household, such as constant screaming, crying, or physical aggression, the baby’s cortisol level rises in response to stress-inducing experiences. This is detrimental to their cognitive and emotional development and will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
They will learn to view the world as a scary, dangerous, unpredictable, and punishing place and will learn to have this worldview about others who come in and out of their lives (think peers, teachers, loved ones). They will learn to be on guard, and given that their cortisol levels are higher than their peers without so much toxic stress, they will be more sensitive to stressful situations and may overreact. This will lead to others presuming that they are “overly dramatic” or too sensitive to deal with seemingly benign situations. Some stress is normal and to be expected in everyday life, but it is important to try to contain the stress and avoid exposing your infant to constant and high stress level situations.
Does stress affect a baby’s emotional or cognitive development? Is it true that babies really mimic and learn the emotions they are exposed to?
Yes, studies have shown that significant stress affects and can even alter a baby’s brain development. Babies do mimic and learn how to react to situations to a degree. Though each baby is born with their own unique temperament, they learn from their caregivers how to react to situations and also, more importantly, learn from their caregivers when things are frightening, unpredictable, or dangerous.
For example, babies are the best experimenters; if their experiment (putting a toy in their mouth or throwing food on the floor) is responded to with yelling, reprimanding, or crying from the parent, the baby will learn that his or her parent cannot handle those actions. They learn that their actions are so severe that they cause such a strong reaction and that their caregiver cannot be depended on for comfort when they are exploring the world. This is important for several reasons.
First, babies learn from an early age who they can turn to for nurturance, help, growth, and love. If they receive inconsistent responses that range from rage to crying to overt love, they may feel like their caregiver is unpredictable. Also, babies will learn to react or overreact to mundane situations by seeing how their caregiver acts. They will most probably be reprimanded or rejected when they express themselves in this way if the caregiver does not realize that the baby’s reactions are imitations of how the caregiver reacts to situations. Babies mirror their parents or caregiver’s reactions to stress and experience feeling stressed out because of that.
The CDC recognizes different “types” of stress, including positive, tolerable, and toxic. What positive effects could stress have and what is it?
Positive effects of stress are related to more benign stresses related to development and growth. Babies need to stress a little bit when it comes to learning new steps (figuratively and literally). A baby not concerned with learning to talk, having trouble expressing themselves, trying to grasp for things, walking, or playing is a baby to be concerned about. A big part of development is learning how to deal with frustrating or stressful situations. A parent who provides their baby a completely stress-free life by doing everything for their baby sends a message that there is a lack of trust that the baby can do it independently. A loving, supportive environment where the parents can help their baby cope with normal stressful situations (like trying to roll over, trying to crawl, picking up toys) is crucial for typical child development across all areas such as emotional, cognitive, motor, and language.
How can parents of young infants reduce their stress? Should they try?
They should definitely try! Not just for their infant but for themselves too. A cared for and calm parent makes a happier baby. First, try many stress reducing techniques. Studies have found that babies in high-risk and toxic stressful environments fared better when their parents protected them from this stress by providing a supportive, loving, and nurturing relationship with hugs, soft words, and a positive outlook. Studies have found that it is not necessarily what happened in the baby’s life but more how the child perceives his or her life to have been. And this part is highly dependent on the caregiver’s ability to provide a safe environment.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019
Parents should seek support from friends, family, and community groups. Rest and relaxation are important to keep a clearer mind and a more positive outlook. Being organized — either with to-do lists (realistic ones) or a planner — can help reduce stress. Being mindful that not everything will get done is important. Try exercising a few times a week to relieve stress and take care of your body. Exercise is a great way to get endorphins flowing, lower cortisol levels, and declutter your mind. If you feel very stressed out and it is negatively impacting your parenting, seek help from a professional. Many times, parents need a perspective flip to find solutions to deal with stressful situations.