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Does Parent Stress Affect Baby?

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By Rachel Reiff Ellis
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

Ever heard this saying? “When mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s a funny phrase, but it’s also true -- babies mirror their parents’ feelings.

Baby See, Baby Do

People say babies are like sponges for a reason: They learn new things at a rapid pace. Not only do they soak up info from the world around them, they also hone in on others’ feelings.

“From birth, infants pick up on emotional cues from others. Even very young infants look to caregivers to determine how to react to a given situation,” says Jennifer E. Lansford, PhD. She's a research professor with the Social Science Research Institute and Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

A recent study confirms that stress is spread from parent to child. Babies were kept apart from their mothers for a short time while the moms completed a stressful task. When reunited, the babies showed signs of stress, too. When it comes to their parents’ emotions, babies are tuned in.

Stress: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you’re worried you’ll need to parent in a vacuum so you don’t pass on frazzled feelings, there’s hope: Not all stress is harmful. The CDC sorts stress into three categories:

  • Positive stress: things that cause low-level anxiety, like meeting new people, or anticipating a needle stick at the doctor
  • Tolerable stress: more intense, but manageable events, like the death of a family member or loss of a job
  • Toxic stress: intense experiences that go on for a long time, like abuse or neglect

That last category is the one to worry about, says Sarah A. Keim, PhD. She's a pediatric expert at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH. Long-term exposure to Mom’s toxic stress can make a baby feel stressed out all the time, too. 

Everyone has stress. How you deal with it can help your baby’s emotional growth. “A little stress gives us motivation, drive, and purpose,” says Keim. And if you have a healthy response to stress, your baby will mirror you.

Being stressed too much can impact how you care for your child, says Lansford. “It affects parents' well-being,” she says. “Stressed parents are less responsive to their infants' cues, and that less-sensitive caregiving is stressful to babies.”

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