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Does Parent Stress Affect Baby?

Calm parents = calm baby: Do you worry too much?
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WebMD Feature

Cynthia Schames' twin son and daughter are only a few weeks old. But she's already noticed something interesting about her babies. "If I'm particularly stressed, they pick up on it," says the Chappaqua, N.Y. mom. "When I feed them, if I'm agitated or impatient, I notice that they're fussier. They spit up more, have a harder time burping, and take noticeably less formula. They also seem to wake up earlier for the next feeding and are grumpier then too."

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

How babies pick up on parents' stress

"When parents stress, the kids are going to be stressed," says Andrew Garner, MD. "We know that from a variety of research that's been done in both humans and animals." Garner is assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He's also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' national committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health. "Babies and children," he tells WebMD, "are very sensitive social barometers."

If there's too much stress and emotional upheaval in a baby's life, that can lead to long-term consequences. "When parents are consumed by their worries," Garner says, "they are less attentive to the needs of their baby, which can leave the baby feeling isolated and afraid. Kids also learn from modeling, 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also learn from maladaptive stress management, like yelling, adopting unhealthy lifestyles, and becoming isolated or withdrawn."

All this can happen at a very young age, says Sandra Weiss, PhD, DNSc, RN, FAAN. Weiss holds the Robert C. and Delphine Wentland Eschbach Endowed Chair in Mental Health Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing. In her research, she's found that when mothers show signs of psychological distress, children as young as 2 are more likely to exhibit psychological distress themselves.

In fact, a CDC 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 chronic health problems.
  • Sustained high levels of certain stress hormones can damage areas of the brain important for learning and memory.
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