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Stress In Babies: Symptoms, Causes, And Prevention

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We usually attribute stress to adults and adolescents, but even babies can feel stressed during the earliest months of life.

Babies usually respond to their parent’s emotions and the environment, which means a stressful parent or environment can also make the baby stressed. Studies show that babies who receive plenty of attention and share a strong bond with the parents had lesser levels of stress hormone than others (1).

Read this MomJunction post to know more about the causes of stress in babies, how to determine if the baby is stressed, and how to prevent it.

Why Is Stress Dangerous For Babies?

Exposure to chronic stress may negatively impact the baby’s brain. Increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, during infancy can be associated with behavioral problems and stress-related disorders in adulthood. In addition to genetics, nutrition, and illnesses, the baby’s experience with the people around them may also affect their brain development (2) (3).

However, the perception of stress may vary for each baby. Some may feel toxic stress from one incident, while other babies may perceive it as a minor problem (4).

How Do You Know If Your Baby Is Stressed?

It may not be easy to identify or understand when your baby is stressed. Though babies cannot verbally express what they are going through, their behavioral changes could indicate that there is something wrong.

You may notice the following signs and symptoms when your baby experiences stress (5) (6):

  1. Increased crying: Crying can be one of the first and most common reactions of a baby who is stressed. It is a signal to the caregiver that they are not feeling well or need something in normal circumstances. A baby who faces stress could cry more than usual. If your baby is crying uncontrollably, you try to find out what is causing them stress.
  1. Changes in sleep habits: Stress could interfere with a baby’s sleeping habits. They may stay awake more than usual and cry due to stress.
  1. No eye contact: Babies try to avoid eye contact when they are stressed. If your baby’s gaze was normal before, and now they avoid looking into your eyes, they may be stressed. In some cases, lack of eye contact may indicate autism spectrum disorders or visual impairment.
  1. Changes in eating habits: Stress may interfere with your baby’s eating habits. Some may tend to overeat, while others may experience a lack of appetite. Stress may also cause tummy trouble in infants, and you may notice signs of indigestion. 
  1. Looks without emotions: Babies may look inexpressive when they are in chronic stress. You could feel a lack of emotions on their face. 

Babies may refuse to eat when they feel fearful and stressed. However, if your baby is not feeding, you should also look for any possible cause of illnesses or constipation. In later stages of infancy, especially when they transition from breastfeeding to eating solid foods, some babies may refuse the new foods because they may still want to breastfeed (5).

A study conducted by a team of psychologists from Germany shows that infants become fussy, start crying, and signal parents to pick them up when they are left to play with strangers for a few minutes. This study demonstrates that infants had problems adapting to new situations when they are under stress (3).

What Causes Stress In Babies?

A baby’s stress can be due to emotional or physical reasons. Anything around them – what they see, hear, and feel – plays a vital role in determining their response. Babies could be easily affected by the emotional changes of the primary caregiver and mother (7). They can also experience some level of stress from positive changes such as learning a new skill. However, stress is mostly linked to negative emotions or illnesses.

The following factors may cause stress in babies (1) (6):

  1. Physical discomfort: One of the main reasons for stress in babies is illnesses or pain. They can be affected by various physical ailments, from simple indigestion to severe disorders or disabilities.
  1. Not getting enough attention: Babies who lack a strong bond with the caregiver could feel stressed. If a baby is left unattended or not acknowledged for a while, they may start crying due to stress. Babies may experience higher levels of stress if no one responds to their cry when they are hungry or after wetting or soiling the diaper.
  1. Separated from parent or caregiver: Being away from the parent or primary caregiver could create stress in babies. They may panic and start crying when they are away from the primary caregiver for a while (3).
  1. Negligence of mother:  Lack of attention could also lead to stress in babies. Physical or emotional neglect from a mother may cause a high level of stress in infants.
  1. Environmental stress: Babies may feel stressed in a new environment, especially without the comfort or presence of their caregiver. Loud and new sounds could also stress them. An argument or fight between siblings, parents, or other family members could create stress in babies, and you may notice them crying in such scenarios.
  1. The caregiver or mother is stressed: An infant may sense the behavior and emotions of their caregiver. They may become stressed when their caregiver is feeling the same. 

Note: If you notice any signs or symptoms of stress in your baby, and feel that there are no psychological stressors, it is advised to contact their pediatrician to rule out any physical illnesses.

How To Prevent Stress In Babies? 

It is essential to prevent stress in your baby since it may have an impact on their mental health and cognitive abilities in later life. Creating a loving bond with the baby is an effective way to make them feel less stressed (8).

Each baby has a different temperament, but sometimes, the nurturing touch of a parent or caregiver could be enough to reduce their stress (1).

The following tips may also help you to reduce your baby’s stress:

  • Give them attention while feeding, whether you are breastfeeding or bottle-feeding
  • Offer gentle touches
  • Do not expose the baby to your stress, as it can affect them
  • Be playful with them; play games that are appropriate for their age
  • Babywearing, a parenting style where your baby is kept close to you with the help of a sling or pouch, can reduce stress.
  • Try not to disturb them when they’re sleeping
  • Respond to their cries; never leave them unattended
  • Give gentle massages

When prevention fails, you may have to resort to measures that help calm the baby.

How Do You Calm A Stressed Baby? 

If you notice that your baby is stressed, or does not stop crying, try to find out the reason behind it. Besides addressing the cause for stress, you can also try the following ways that may comfort your baby (9) (10):

  • Swaddle (wrapping in the blanket) your baby
  • Carry them and walk around
  • Turn on music that they like
  • Make them interact with siblings or pets
  • Change diaper if it is wet or soiled
  • Feed them if they are hungry
  • Give a pacifier or help them find fingers

Brain development is not complete at birth and often depends on the environmental cues that the baby is exposed to after birth. An infant’s brain can’t give high-quality self-stimulation, as it adjusts to what it sees, hears, and feels. Thus, a loving and nurturing stimulation from a caregiver can be good for the baby’s brain development. Stimulation from electronic media cannot replace communication with people (4).

Babies are like sponges. Their little brains absorb everything from the environment around them. So, try to avoid stress during pregnancy and parenthood, as it may negatively affect the neurobehavioral development of your baby.

What techniques do you use to deal with the baby’s stress? Share your experience with us in the comment section below. 

References:

1. Linda Folden Palmer; Stress in Infancy; The natural child project
2. Early Brain Development and Health; child development; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
3. Sabine Seehagen, et al.; Stress impairs cognitive flexibility in infants; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
4. Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma; The American Academy of Pediatrics
5. Stress and Children Ages 0-3; Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment
6. Trauma and Children– newborns to two years; BetterHealth; Victoria State Government
7. Claire Lerner; Parents Under Stress: What It Means for Babies
8. Robert Winston and Rebecca Chicot; The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children; The United States National Library of Medicine
9. Soothing a crying infant; child welfare; The united states Department of Health & Human Services
10. How to Calm a Fussy Baby: Tips for Parents & Caregivers; healthy children; The American Academy of Pediatrics
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