As parents and caregivers, we’ve all experienced it. The “this isn’t what I signed up for” feeling you get when your baby wakes for the third time in the middle of the night and it seems like nothing will soothe them. You’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and just plain stressed.
These feelings, and the accompanying stress, are completely normal, but does that stress response have an affect on your baby?
Our team of experts here at Milk Drunk have done the research for you. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about how babies sense stress, how they respond to it, and what you can do to relieve your own stress response so both you and your baby feel better.
Stress as a New Parent
They’ve only been here a few weeks, but the stress of acclimating to a new baby combined with the rest of your life responsibilities has you stressed to the max.
Whether you’re caring for your child alone or with a partner, or are a caregiver for a newborn, you should know that babies do sense stress and anxiety. Here’s how.
Can babies sense stress and anxiety?
Babies sense stress. While most caregivers and parents tend to think the ability to sense stress only happens later in their child’s life (after a year or so of age), studies show babies can sense their caretaker’s stress as early as three months of age.
Babies, especially young babies, are like sponges, taking in their environment and those in it all day long. Babies are constantly trying to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing around them.
A caregiver’s facial expression or tone of voice can give a baby a pretty good idea of whether they are sad, angry, or happy. In fact, babies are even capable of having these strong feelings (sadness, anger, stress, and anxiety) themselves from as early as three to five months of age.
Does Your Response to Stress Make a Difference?
Yes — when you’re stressed, your baby senses it.
The way you handle your stress determines how your baby will respond to it, too.
Keeping a level head when you’re feeling anxious and stressed will help keep your baby calm, which in turn, can help you feel less stressed.
How Do Stress and Anxiety Affect A Baby?
There are different types of stress, and not all of them are harmful. However, repeated exposure to toxic stress can take a toll not only on you as a caregiver and/or parent, but also on your baby.
Here’s how to determine what you’re feeling, and how your baby can be impacted by those feelings.
Three Different Types of Stress
The CDC categorizes stress into three different types.
- Positive stress. This is low-level anxiety that can make a person slightly nervous but also help them be more productive and even elicits feelings of excitement.
- Tolerable stress. This is slightly more intense than positive stress, yet still manageable. Think of it like the stress you feel while rushing to try to get to an appointment on time, or waiting for the outcome of a test.
- Toxic stress. This level of stress is harmful. It includes intense anxiety, feelings of impending doom, and overwhelming feelings of dread. This type of stress is especially harmful if it is experienced long term.
Babies exposed to high levels of toxic stress have higher levels of cortisol, and are more likely to develop behavioral problems later in life. In some extreme cases, babies exposed to prolonged toxic stress can even have shorter lifespans and altered brain growth.
Exposure to stress can even elevate your baby’s heart rate, and cause cardiac stress. Studies show that when a mother is experiencing an elevated heart rate due to stress, her baby will experience cardiac stress as well.
Signs Your Baby is Stressed or Anxious
Knowing the signs of a baby in distress can help you refocus, and regain composure so both you and your baby can feel better.
If you think your baby may be experiencing stress, you can look for some tell-tale signs.
While you might assume crying is the first and foremost sign of stress in a baby, this is not necessarily the case. Crying is a cue, but it isn’t always the only cue or the most prevalent cue.
Here are some signs you might notice in a baby that is experiencing stress:
- No eye contact. Your baby may refuse to make eye contact with you, or simply look away from your direct gaze.
- Sneezing and yawning. If your baby begins sneezing or yawning excessively and it is not likely they are in need of a nap or that they are experiencing an allergy, it could be a stress response.
- Spreading fingers wide. Newborns, especially, tend to hold their hands in fists. If your baby is spreading their fingers wide, it can be indicative of a stress response.
- Does not seem relaxed. You know your baby better than anyone, and you know when your baby is happy and relaxed. If your baby doesn’t seem relaxed and is displaying behavior that is contrary to her normal behavior, they could be experiencing stress and anxiety.
Every baby is different, and every baby will respond to stress differently, so this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of symptoms.
Ultimately, if you’re stressed and it shows, assume your baby can sense it, too. Then, look for ways to reduce your own stress and anxiety.
How Can I Help Prevent or Alleviate My Baby’s Stress?
You’re going to feel stress, especially adjusting to life with a baby. However, you can learn to manage your stress better.
In the meantime, there are actions you can take to help soothe your baby and alleviate their stress.
Here’s what you can do to calm a baby that is experiencing stress.
- Physical touch. Offer lots of physical attention but pay attention and learn what your baby likes and how much is too much. A nurturing touch can release oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which has a calming effect on your baby.
- Communication. Engage with your baby in one-on-one communication. Just like physical touch, calm, friendly talk and reassuring body language can produce a calming effect in babies.
- Walk and move. Hold your baby while moving for the most effective way to calm them — babies LOVE to be carried around while you’re moving! It goes without saying you shouldn’t rock or bounce your baby when you are stressed or angry. The number one trigger for shaken baby syndrome is frustration with a baby’s crying. If you feel angry or frustrated with your baby, place them in a safe place, like their crib, and walk away until you can settle down.
How To Cope With Stress and Anxiety as a New Parent
Becoming a new parent is wonderful and scary at the same time. There are so many changes, and just when you feel you’ve got something “right,” your baby hits a new milestone and all the rules change.
Stress and anxiety are a completely normal aspect of parenthood and caregiving. Don’t beat yourself up over it! Just realize it may take a toll on your baby as well as you and/or your partner.
There are steps you can take to lower your stress level and help both you and your baby rest easier.
- Determine the cause of your stress. Parenting and caregiving is overwhelming on its own, but are there outside circumstances making it worse? Do a little digging and try to find out the source of your anxiety.
- Self care is good baby care. The old adage “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is true. To take the best possible care of your baby, you must first take care of yourself. Take a relaxing bath, eat healthfully, schedule in sleep when you can, drink water, avoid excess alcohol, and get in some physical exercise. Even 30 minutes a day to yourself for a nap or yoga can alleviate stress and make a huge difference in your mental health.
- Ask for help. It truly takes a village to raise a child, so ask for help when you need it! Turn to someone you trust for support and assistance. Other family members, close friends and neighbors are great ideas for lending a helping hand. If you seem to experience toxic stress frequently, seek professional help from a therapist to help you understand the source of your stress and help you develop healthy ways to cope.
You’ve Got This!
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and stressed, but learning to cope with stress in a healthy way is a good idea for you and your baby.
Seek out resources to help you manage your stress and always rely on the team at Milk Drunk for support and up to date information on issues like stress, postpartum depression, and other baby-related issues.