Do babies experience stress? Surely not a lot, all they seem to do is sleep, cry, eat and produce dirty nappies? Isn’t it rather us, the parents that have the stress of wondering whether we’re doing the right thing, and being sleep deprived because of cute little bub’s nightly cries and feeds?
Well, let’s have a look at things from your baby’s perspective.
Coming from a warm, protective, snugly embracing womb, this little lamb is thrown into the open wide world. Very dependent, can’t eat or move around without help and communication is still very basic. Instinctively, your baby’s alarm bells will go off when he/she is left alone or ignored. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol will increase and if this happens for prolonged periods of time, it will have a negative impact on several systems within the body, such as immune system and the development of the brain. Research has shown that prolonged high levels of cortisol can have serious long-term consequences! On the other hand, if you can prevent stress and help your baby feel safe and secure, this will have a huge positive impact for life, giving him/her strong self-confidence.
Gradually and in a natural way, you will learn to read your baby’s body language, all you need to do then is to respond to what your baby is trying to tell you. Every baby is different, so look for the signs typical for your bub. General examples of signals of stress or tiredness can be:
- avoiding eye contact
- flailing arms (with fingers wide spread) and/or legs
- arching the back (although this can also be associated with other issues e.g. reflux)
- frown, grunt, grimace
- rubbing eyes / ears
- a lot of yawning, sneezing or hiccuping in a row
- uncontrollable crying
A bit of crying as such does not necessarily increase the cortisol levels: remember it is the only means of communication your baby can use to indicate he/she needs something. Bub can need a feed, a clean nappy, more clothes/cover because it’s cold or less because it’s warm, or simply some reassuring attention. As long as you react to it and give your baby what he/she needs, there is no stress. Ignore your baby’s signals, and it will become stressful. You can compare this to you talking to someone or asking a question. The talking or asking as such does not give you stress, does it? It’s only if the other person ignores you or doesn’t answer your question that you get annoyed and the stress is added. Interacting with your baby will enhance bonding, which is very important too (see article re bonding).
Babies can also pick up stress from people around them, or get stressed because of over stimulation by noise, (flashing) light (screens!), or even touch.
So what can you when your baby shows signs of being stressed? Take them to a quiet room/space with dimmed light. Physical contact such as holding or stroking your baby does wonders, or even just hearing the reassuring sound of Mum’s or Dad’s soft voice helps your baby to feel reassured and at ease.
And what about massage, how relaxing is that! Why? It lowers the levels of cortisol as well as increases the levels of hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, that help your baby feel good. Mind you, even the relaxing touch of massage can sometimes be too much for your baby, depending on his/her mood or the stimulus he/she has had so far during the day. This is why we teach how to ask your baby’s permission for the massage (don’t try to massage when your baby is showing signs of stress or tiredness, it will be too much). We also teach to perform the strokes with quite a firm touch. Light touch can be tickling and irritating. Also, no matter which stage you’re at during the massage, whether you’ve only massaged one leg, are half way through a full body massage or almost finished, as soon as your baby indicates having had enough, it’s hands off, pick him/her up, give a cuddle and that’s it for that session!
Hope this article hasn’t stressed you out… relax!