Babies And Stress: New Research for Parents & Practitioners

Babies And Stress: New Research for Parents & Practitioners

By Kerrie Gottliebsen

Ask a room full of mums and dads at Tweddle if they find parenting stressful and you’ll receive a resounding yes. Ask those same parents about how that stress impacts their baby or toddler and you’ll get a wide range of responses.

A new national survey by US research and advocacy group Zero To Three has found that parents are uncertain about how stress effects their child’s development.

According to research, babies can be affected by parents’ moods – and sense how they are feeling as early as 3 months old. Studies show that even in the earliest months of life, very young babies are trying to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing all around them. This means that when parents experience ongoing, significant stress, babies absorb it. They pick up on their caregivers’ facial expressions and tone of voice—whether they are sad, angry, or happy—right from the start, and react accordingly.

Stress has a cumulative effect. Parenting stress can manifest as anxiety, sadness, frustration and aggression. When you consider the multiple areas of stress that can impact a parent’s ability to cope with the very early months and years of parenting, it’s easy to see how a parent’s capacity to cope with a sleepless, crying baby might start to break down.

Unresponsive, frightened or frightening parents are unlikely to be able to provide attuned responses for their children and need support. Consider for a moment how stressed you would be with four or more of these early parenting challenges and think about how a baby or toddler might also be coping: mental illness, social and geographical isolation, bonding and attachment difficulties, feeding difficulties, severe financial difficulties, family violence, an acute health condition, multiple children, history of child abuse or neglect, substance or alcohol misuse, disability, housing, parent without support and teenage parenting.

For a baby or toddler, learning how to cope with stress and adverse childhood experiences is an important part of healthy development. While moderate, short-lived stress responses in the body can promote growth, unrelieved activation of a child’s stress management system in the absence of protective adult can create lifelong health issues as documented in The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

This ground-breaking research by Dr. Vince Felitti and Dr. Bob Anda asked 17,500 adults about their history of exposure to what they called “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs. Those include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. For every yes, you would get a point on your ACE score.

The evidence points to adverse childhood experiences or ACES impacting not only brain structure and function but the immune system, developing hormonal systems, DNA, and a range of adult health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, stroke, obesity, and some forms of cancer.

So how does a constantly stressful environment effect a baby or toddler’s brain? The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, the brain’s and body’s stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response, releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the baby’s system. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing.

Dr. Robert Block, the former President of the American Academy of Paediatrics said, “Adverse Childhood Experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” Leading American paediatrician Nadine Burke Harris agrees, “Early adversity dramatically affects health across a lifetime. Today, we are beginning to understand how to interrupt the progression from early adversity to disease and early death”.

Experts around the world agree that adversity in early childhood produces inequality in ability, achievement, health and adult success. Policy makers and civic leaders are learning from recent scientific discoveries about development in the first 1000 days of a child’s life to shape the future health of communities.

The Harvard Centre on the Developing Child assert that policy and practice should concentrate on three key principles; Supporting responsive relationships for children and adults, strengthen life skills and Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.

There are many things parents can do to relieve stress starting with the basics: regular sleep, nutrition, exercise, practicing mindfulness, cultivating healthy relationships and working with a therapist or parenting support specialist.

Services like Tweddle’s support the reduction of parental stress in the critical first 1000 days (conception to age 2) which in turn improves chronic and intergenerational health outcomes for children.

Read about the Zero to Three’ National Parent Survey, Tuning In’ and ‘Babies and Stress – the facts’ here.

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