Many new parents are really stressed out.  Then they feel stressed about feeling stressed.  They really worry that their baby will “pick up” on their stress, and be damaged by it. Of course, this can make them feel like failures and more guilty and more anxious… So what is the truth of the matter?

It is complicated.

Having a new baby IS stressful.

Having a new baby in a pandemic without your family or friends or support network around you is super stressful. Doing so while facing bereavement, job loss, financial insecurity, or any other of life’s stressors, is even more challenging.  Please do not worry about stressing your baby out when you are already going through things like this.

We know that anxiety and a certain amount of stress is completely normal and sometimes even healthy.  The stress that most of us are going through right now is not nice, but is unlikely to have negative long term consequences for our babies. The kind of stress that might have more of an impact on a family is long term, severe and toxic. This might include clinical depression in either parent, or family members struggling with abuse, addiction or domestic violence. These types of stressors need urgent attention.

Is it true that a baby can “catch” your stress?

It depends on the age of your baby and the severity of the situation. 

Babies are designed to pick up on your responses to what is happening around you, that is how they learn.  It is thought that babies experience emotions such as sadness and anger from about three months old, and there is some evidence that babies from about this age can be upset by the sound of shouting even when they are asleep.  Even young babies will have some level of response to how you are behaving, your tone of voice, facial expression, your heart rate and temperature, possibly even your smell. They are sensitive to rough handling and big changes in their daily routine. Babies’ ability to pick up on these things start very young and get better attuned with age. More complex responses such as separation anxiety, are experienced a little later (from 6m to 3 years, often peaking from 8-12 months).

If a parent is continually stressed it can start to impact on how they care for their baby and their ability to tune into their baby’s cues.  There is a body of research about the impact of parental postnatal depression on their child. In these cases there is a clear correlation between the length and severity of the depressive episode and its impact.  The negative outcomes are mostly to do with the lack of normal loving interaction between the parent and child, the ability of the affected parent to understand and respond appropriately to the child’s needs.  It is particularly damaging when associated with social and economic adversity.

“Needy” babies

Some babies seem to be born stressed out, and they are likely to result in stressed out parents, just as much as the other way around.  Some babies have a massive need for stimulation and reassurance and seemingly constant close contact with their caregiver, and they might still be unhappy.  Pamela Douglas’ “Discontented Little Baby Book” discusses the “crying period”, the first sixteen weeks, as your baby adjusts to life in the world and the enormous changes they are going through. 

Not all stressed out babies cry all the time.  They might just get upset when you put them down. They might display other signs of stress such as avoiding eye contact, splaying their fingers, making fists, or yawning a great deal.

What can you do with a stressed out baby? 

Obviously, make sure that your baby is OK.  Address any potential feeding or health issues that might be making your baby unhappy. Try to remember that this is normal for some babies, no reflection of your parenting ability or how much your baby loves you, and that things will get easier with time.

Parents have all sorts of ways for soothing babies, most of which will involve holding them close and rocking them, and perhaps “shhhhing” them. Wearing baby in a well chosen sling can make all the difference to everyone’s stress levels.  Babies love to suck for comfort, so generous breastfeeding can help a lot.  If this is too much and baby just needs to suck, a pacifier can be a fabulous idea, or sucking on a caregiver’s clean finger. Many babies under three months respond well to being appropriately swaddled, although this is not recommended for night time sleeps especially when bedsharing with a parent.

Managing your stress

Try to readjust your expectations about what is normal, and work hard to look after yourselves as much as your little ones.  This can mean rethinking your life to make sure that you factor in as many nice activities for the parent(s) as possible, and take the baby along for the ride. You might be surprised how much going for a walk or calling a friend makes you feel better, and your baby calmer.

Other top tips include eating well, taking as much rest as possible, relaxing when baby is asleep, and getting some outdoor exercise if you can.

It is so helpful to reach out to someone you trust; a friend, family member, support group or therapist. If you are concerned about postnatal depression, your GP is the first point of call.

Much of life’s stress is unavoidable, it is how we deal with it that matters. Most normal life stress that we experience will not impact on our little ones in any meaningful way.