Does Parent Stress Affect Baby?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 27, 2015
3 min read

Ever heard this saying? “When mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” That saying can ring true because your baby’s feelings are likely to mirror yours.

People say babies are like sponges. They soak up information from the world around them and learn things at a fast pace. They’re also watching you.

“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, a professor with the Social Science Research Institute and the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

So when it comes to their parents’ emotions, babies are tuned in. Stress can be spread from parent to child. In one study, 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.

Worried about how to be totally stress-free so you don’t pass on frazzled feelings? Don't be. Not all stress is harmful. The CDC sorts stress into three categories:

  • Positive stress: the low-level anxiety you might have when you meet new people or await a needle stick at the doctor
  • Tolerable stress: more intense but still manageable, from events like losing a job or a family member
  • Toxic stress: intense anxiety from something that goes on for a long time, like abuse or neglect

Toxic stress is the one that should concern you, says Sarah A. Keim, PhD, a pediatric expert at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH. If you feel stressed out all the time, your baby may, too. Feeling anxious and pressured can also impact how you care for your child, Lansford says.

“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.”

Everyone has some stress. How you deal with it can help your baby’s emotional growth.

“A little stress gives us motivation, drive, and purpose,” Keim says. And if you have a healthy response to stress, your baby will mirror you.

  • Find out the problem. The source of your anxiety may be clear -- money struggles or problems at work, for example. Or it might not be obvious and you may need to dig. Try to figure out what causes it so you can look out for, and try to avoid, triggers.
  • Put the focus on you. To take care of your baby, you have to first take care of yourself. Eat well, get as much sleep as possible (nap when baby naps, really), drink plenty of water, and exercise.
  • Get help. If you’re truly stressed out, turn to someone you trust for support. You can also contact a trained professional such as a psychologist to help you manage your load in a healthy way.

What does an anxious baby look like? “Some might assume crying is the primary way infants would respond to stress, but this isn't necessarily the case,” Keim says. Your baby may be stressed if they:

  • Do not make eye contact
  • Spread their fingers wide
  • Sneeze often
  • Yawn often

To help them relax:

  • Gently put your hand on their head or feet.
  • Place their hands together.
  • Encourage them to suck on a pacifier or your thumb or finger.
  • Swaddle their in a blanket.
  • Hold or rock them gently while you make a “shhh” sound.