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Does parent stress affect baby?

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Babies may be too small to understand our words, but they're very sensitive to their parents' emotions and moods. You would be, too, if you depended on someone for everything you needed to stay alive! So, parent stress often equals baby stress.

How babies pick up on parent stress

When parents are stressed, research has found that can rub off on children and even babies.

Babies and children, it seems, are very sensitive social barometers.

If there's too much stress and emotional upheaval in a baby's life, it can lead to long-term consequences.

When parents are caught-up in their worries, they are less attentive to the needs of their baby, which can leave the baby feeling isolated and afraid. Children also learn from modelling, so you model the way you manage stress. If you model good stress management - taking a deep breath, counting to 10, making time for exercise - they learn from that.

They also learn from bad stress management, like shouting, adopting unhealthy lifestyles, and becoming isolated or withdrawn.

Researchers say when mothers show signs of psychological distress, children as young as two are more likely to exhibit psychological distress themselves.

In fact, one US government report found that 'toxic stress' - adverse experiences sustained over a long period of time - can actually change how a child's brain develops. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can impact the brain and impair functioning in a number of ways, the report notes. Here are some examples:

  • Toxic stress can impair the connection of brain circuits and lead to the development of a smaller brain.
  • Children can become overly reactive to adverse experiences throughout their lives, developing a low stress threshold.
  • High levels of stress hormones can suppress the body's immune response, leading to long-term (chronic) health problems.
  • Sustained high levels of certain stress hormones can damage areas of the brain important for learning and memory.

Opportunities for teaching your baby how to handle stress

By now, you may be worrying. You may think that because you've been having a rough time with a deadline at work and coming home stressed and overwhelmed, you're sentencing your sweet baby to a lifetime of health problems. That's not the case.

Your baby may certainly notice mild to moderate stress that's relatively short-lived, but that "'tolerable stress'" doesn't have long-term consequences. Some stress, such as starting a new day care regime or getting an immunisation jab, is even considered "positive". The baby or child experiences a surge in heart rate and changes in hormone levels, but if the parent or carer comforts and supports the child, the child learns to manage and overcome such stress. And that's an essential life skill.

What's important, experts say, is developing good coping tools to help you manage your stress. That way, your baby isn't overwhelmed by it or stressed more than necessary, and the situation doesn't escalate into something more severe.

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