signs of stress or distress

What Are Signs Of Stress Or Distress In Babies?

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 their parents had lesser stress hormone levels than others.

Why should we care about stress in babies?

Nobody wants a stressed-out baby. But, unfortunately, the stress is contagious, making everyone miserable.

Stress in babies can have long-lasting adverse effects. Firstly, exposure to chronic stress negatively impacts the baby’s brain. 

Increased levels of the stress hormone- cortisol during infancy can be associated with behavioural problems and stress-related disorders in adulthood. 

In addition to genetics, nutrition, and illnesses, the baby’s experience with the people around them also affects their brain development.

And when the stress is chronic — a regular feature of everyday life — children face long-term health consequences.

If babies are exposed to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, they are more likely to develop behaviour problems and stress-related diseases later in life.

In the worst-case scenario, toxic stress may alter brain growth and shorten lifespan. 

However, the perception of stress may vary for each baby. For example, some may feel toxic pressure from one incident, while other babies may perceive it as a minor problem.

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How Do I Know What My Baby Needs?

All babies have behaviours that tell you what they need. Premature or sick babies do this, too. So watch for cues (signs) of what to do to help your baby grow and develop. 

By watching your baby’s skin colour, breathing, facial expressions, and movements, you will be able to tell whey your baby is satisfied, when she wants you to interact with her, and when she needs some rest.

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 behavioural changes could indicate something wrong.

You may notice the following signs and symptoms when your baby experiences stress:

Signs Of Stress Or Distress In Babies

Cues That Your Baby Is Content And Ready To Interact With You:

  • normal skin colour
  • arms and legs flexed or tucked
  • hand touching his face
  • hand to mouth or in mouth
  • sucking
  • looking at you
  • smiling and looks relaxed
  • regular breathing rate
  • if your baby is on a monitor, a regular heartbeat

Signs Of Stress—cues That Your Baby Is Getting Too Much Stimulation:

  • hiccupping
  • yawning
  • sneezing
  • frowning
  • looking away
  • squirming
  • frantic, disorganized activity
  • arms and legs pushing away
  • arms and legs limp and floppy
  • skin colour changes

Increased Crying: 

Crying can be one of the first and most common reactions of a baby who is stressed. 

It signals 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.

Changes In Sleep Habits: 

Stress could interfere with a baby’s sleeping habits. For example, they may stay awake more than usual and cry due to stress.

No Eye Contact: 

Babies try to avoid eye contact when they are stressed. 

If your baby’s gaze was typical 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.

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.

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 the later stages of infancy, especially when they transition from breastfeeding to eating solid foods, some babies may refuse the new foods because they still want to breastfeed.

Looks Without Emotions: 

Babies may look inexpressive when they are under chronic stress. You could feel a lack of emotions on their face.

An Unfamiliar Situation: 

A study conducted by a team of psychologists 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.

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 the later stages of infancy, especially when they transition from breastfeeding to eating solid foods, some babies may refuse the new foods because they still want to breastfeed.

A study conducted by a team of psychologists 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. In addition, this study demonstrates that infants had problems adapting to new situations when they are under stress.

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. 

They can also experience some level of stress from positive changes, such as learning a new skill. However, stress is mainly linked to negative emotions or illnesses.

The following factors may cause stress in babies:

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.

Not Getting Enough Attention: 

Babies who lack a strong bond with the caregiver could feel stressed. For example, if a baby is left unattended or not acknowledged for a while, they may start crying due to stress. 

Babies may experience higher stress levels if no one responds to their cries when hungry or after wetting or soiling the diaper.

Separated From Parent Or Caregiver: 

Being away from the parent or primary caregiver could create stress in babies. For example, they may panic and start crying when away from the primary caregiver for a while.

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.

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.

The Caregiver Or Mother Is Stressed: 

An infant may sense the behaviour and emotions of their caregiver. As a result, 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 Can I Help My Baby?

  • Avoid bright lights and loud noise.
  • Use a soft, quiet voice when talking to your baby.
  • Handle your baby slowly and gently.
  • When moving or holding your baby, keep his arms and legs close to his body.
  • Help your baby bring her hands close to her face.
  • Help your baby maintain a relaxed, tucked position.
  • Avoid too much stimulation or activity at one time.
  • Let your baby sleep. Sleeping helps babies grow.

How To Prevent Stress In Babies? 

It is essential to prevent stress in your baby since it may impact their mental health and cognitive abilities in later life. In addition, creating a loving bond with the baby is an effective way to make them feel less stressed.

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

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.
  • Baby wearing, 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:

  • 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 delivery. 

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 suitable for the baby’s brain development. However, inspiration from electronic media cannot replace communication with people.

 Offer lots of physical affection but pay attention to what your baby likes and dislikes.

As noted above, nurturing touch appears to protect babies from harmful stress, and researchers think they know why.

Affectionate contact triggers the release of several stress-busting chemicals in the brain, including oxytocin (the so-called “love hormone”) and endogenous opioids (natural painkillers).

These have a calming effect and help switch off the production of cortisol. 

As a result, there is less physiological wear and tear on the body, and the brain is more likely to develop a long-term pattern of resilience to stress.

So physical affection is an excellent stress-buster. But keep in mind: Sometimes, babies respond negatively to touch. They might find it irritating, creepy, or overwhelming.

For instance, experiments suggest that many young babies don’t like the sensation of a light caress. Instead, they seem to prefer a more firm sort of touch.

Babies may also find it stressful to be touched in isolation, outside the context of friendly, multi-sensory interaction.

In experiments on newborns, infants showed a drop in cortisol levels when they were stroked by a caregiver who rocked them, made eye contact, and spoke soothingly. 

But when they were stroked in silence –without rocking or eye contact – these babies experienced a cortisol surge.

So we should adapt our approach to the baby’s preferences, and sometimes that means backing off altogether.

Occasionally babies feel over-stimulated and need to withdraw, and we can cause stress if we don’t respect their wishes.

In one study, researchers watched mothers and infants as they played together and noted whether or not mothers heeded their babies’ signals about being touched. 

Babies who received unwanted stimulation had higher cortisol levels.

Check out our article about what bedding to use to give your baby the perfect night’s sleep.

Think Like A Baby.

It’s not easy to get inside your baby’s head, to see things from an infant’s perspective. 

When was the last time you found yourself vulnerable, dependent, immobilized, and unable to communicate with language?

But the better you understand your baby’s feelings, the better your chances of minimizing stress.

For example, take bath time. Do you prepare everything first and then undress the baby just before putting him in the water? Or do you undress the baby first and make him wait for his bath?

Suppose the parent tries to hold the baby in one arm while she readies the bath with the other. And suppose that the naked, waiting baby gets cold.

Now the baby cries and squirms, making it hard for his mother to hold onto him. 

When the water is finally ready, the struggling mother releases the baby awkwardly, plunking him in the water more abruptly than she intended.

The water feels hot against the baby’s skin, and he screams in outrage.

In this way, a single misstep – allowing the baby to get cold– can lead to a lot of unnecessary strife for everyone.

And, say, Hane and Philbrook, little episodes like this might push families in the wrong direction.

Because the baby seems so temperamental and intolerant of change, the parent handles these situations by becoming more brusque and controlling. 

It’s going to be miserable, so why not get it over with quickly?

But forcing the matter ensures that the encounter will be stressful and creates a vicious circle of bad feelings–one calculated to turn childcare into a series of conflicts.

Perhaps, then, we can avert a whole cascade of adverse effects by figuring out what sets our babies off and changing our tactics.

If your baby’s irritation has you stumped, try asking an experienced helper for advice. But, unfortunately, you might be too stressed to see things objectively.

And take heart: Making the effort to understand your baby’s point of view may lead to many benefits. 

Studies suggest that parents who tune in the end up with stronger attachment relationships and babies who develop better social skills.

Don’t Underestimate Your Baby’s Ability To Read And Mirror Your Negative Emotions.

When you’re distracted, upset, or depressed, you might think your baby doesn’t notice. But research suggests otherwise. 

Studies show that babies – even newborns — get distressed when their caregivers become emotionally unresponsive.

And by six months, many babies can distinguish between happy and angry body language. 

So early on, babies are sensitive to our emotional cues. What’s more, babies can sense when we’re stressed out — and this tends to make them feel stressed out too.

Just as important, there’s evidence that babies are affected by witnessing third party conflicts. 

They can tell when parents are bickering or fighting with each other — and these experiences may put babies at higher risk for developing abnormal stress response systems.

But here, the takeaway lesson is that your moods matter. 

By seeking social support or other remedies, managing your stress could make an essential difference to your baby’s behaviour and well-being.

For a guide to evidence-based coping strategies, see my tips for coping with parenting stress. 

And if you think you might be suffering from postpartum depression, check out my article, “Postpartum depression symptoms: When is it more than the ‘baby blues?”

Signs Of Stress Or Distress In Babies

Engage Your Baby In One-on-one Communication, But Don’t Force It.

Like physical affection, friendly talk and sympathetic body language can trigger our brains to release “feel good” chemicals, like oxytocin.

Moreover, studies reveal that babies benefit when we treat them as conversation partners–acknowledging their feelings, responding to their essential questions, and offering them support when distressed.

Not only do these tactics teach babies to cope with their negative emotions, but they also help babies develop secure, healthy attachment relationships.

But once again, we need to be careful about the context. Just as babies can become stressed by physical touch, they can be overwhelmed by face-to-face communication.

If your face is too close or your baby has had enough “conversation,” she will let you know. She may duck or put her hands over her face. She may try to turn her head and look away.

Crying? Fussing? Calm That Baby With A Walk.

It’s old wisdom supported by modern science: Babies like to be carried around and seem to find it more soothing than being held by a person who doesn’t move.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that infants experienced slower heart rates, reduced body movement, and reduced crying when held by an adult walking from place to place.

Make Yourself Emotionally Available At Bedtime.

Our ancestors slept close to their babies for most of human history, and an infant’s survival depended on staying near. 

So it shouldn’t surprise us that babies find it stressful to be left alone in the dark.

Indeed, there is evidence that babies experience elevated cortisol levels in this situation – even if they have been “trained” to sleep in their rooms and remain relatively quiet.

But our nighttime sleeping arrangements don’t just affect the stress babies feel at night. They also may affect how babies handle stress at other times.

For instance, when researchers subjected 12-month-old babies to a social stressor – the so-called “strange situation” – they found that infants varied depending on their personal histories.

Babies who had spent more weeks “rooming in” with their parents experienced less cortisol reactivity, even after controlling for other factors, like parental sensitivity and attachment security.

Another study reports that 5-week-old infants with a history of co-sleeping showed evidence of greater calm. 

While co-sleeping history had no apparent effect on the babies’ responses to a painful vaccination, it was linked with less cortisol reactivity during bath time.

So being physically close at night may help babies regulate their stress responses throughout the day. But physical proximity isn’t the whole story.

Some researchers argue that the crucial ingredient is “emotional availability at bedtime.”

What exactly does this phrase mean? Researchers consider you to be “emotionally available” if you do the following:

  • Use quiet, soothing routines to help your baby fall asleep at night.
  • Avoid initiating social interactions with your baby when they are falling asleep.
  • Maintain a manner that is free of irritation and hostility.
  • Respond promptly (within a minute) when your baby cries out in distress.

And in case you’re wondering, emotional availability at bedtime appears to help babies sleep longer during the night. It sounds like a good deal all around!

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 your baby’s neurobehavioral development.

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