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Effects of Parental Stress on Infants

by Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell

Infants may be too young and immature to make sense out of words, but they're keenly sensitive to the moods and emotions of their parents, explains WebMD. In fact, parental stress translates to infant stress more times than not, since babies quickly pick up on their parents' vibes due to their extremely sensitive social barometers.

Toxic Stress

A parent with substance abuse issues or who suffers from mental illness can impose the most acute form of stress -- called toxic stress -- on their child, explains the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Toxic stress which can also result from persistent neglect and emotional or physical abuse -- perhaps when a parent feels overwhelmed by financial burdens or relationship issues -- can release stress hormones in an infant that can potentially alter the connection of brain circuits. In extreme cases, ongoing toxic stress can result in the development of a smaller brain. Chronic stress can lead to heart disease, digestive problems and sleep disturbances over the long term.

Sensitivity

When parents let their personal problems get the best of them, they pay less attention to the needs of their infant, which can make the infant feel fearful and alone, says Andrew Garner, MD, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' national committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health. Although an infant is clearly incapable of understanding the significance or meaning of highly stressful events such as divorce, she is skilled at detecting changes in her parents' moods and actions. Some parents sink into a depression following a separation and are slower to respond to their infant's needs.

Contagious Moods

An infant is able not only to pick up on changes in your attitude or feelings, but he is also highly susceptible to “catching” his parent’s feelings, points out University of Missouri Extension. When a mom acts concerned or unhappy in the presence of her baby, her baby is apt to become sad and upset. A troubled baby may become fussy and hard to please or seem disinterested in things or other people when he detects that his parents are distressed.

Considerations

Receptive and supportive encounters with caring adults early in life can stop or undo the harmful effects of toxic stress response. When at least one parent is consistently supportive and caring, most stress responses are tolerable, notes Harvard University. Getting a vaccination or attending day care for the first time may ignite a normal or positive stress response in terms of how an infant's body responds to the taxing event, assuming of course that the parent isn't overly stressed out due to these circumstances.

About the Author

Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell is a broadcast journalist who began writing professionally in 1980. Her writing focuses on parenting and health, and has appeared in “Spirituality & Health Magazine" and “Essential Wellness.” Hellesvig-Gaskell has worked with autistic children at the Fraser School in Minneapolis and as a child care assistant for toddlers and preschoolers at the International School of Minnesota, Eden Prairie.

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