Having a baby brings with it all kinds of amazing experiences, but having to care 24/7 for this tiny human also creates many new and sometimes unexpected challenges. These challenges can result in stressful feelings, the effects of which may not only be confined to you; research by Keith Hampton et al has shown us that stress can be contagious. Therefore, understanding the different types of stress, their impact and then how to manage them to ensure yours and your baby’s well-being is very important.
First of all, it is completely normal to feel stressed; it’s a natural response to many situations in life. A little bit of stress can be helpful in overcoming difficult situations. But when you become a parent, disruptions to your schedule and sleep, worries over how to care for your baby, changes to your social life and health, and many other things can up those stress levels. On top of this, there are things like seeing other parents with their seemingly perfect Instagram lives, and lots of news sites preying on worried parents, telling you that stress will harm your children, without giving you the full picture.
But as mentioned before, not all stress is equal. We’ve taken a look at the stress that won’t and the stress that could affect your child and their development.
Different types of stress
Stress is our body’s reaction to some kind of change in environment, thoughts or body. It is a natural reaction where the body thinks it’s under attack, so it prepares it for ‘fight or flight’ mode. Some stress is bad, but some can be seen as good. If stress hormones are elevated for long periods of time, they can have lasting effects on the brain and biological tissues, which can lead to problems later in life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have split stress responses into three categories:
- Positive: increased heart rate / low-level anxieties such as when meeting new people
- Tolerable: more severe difficulties such as injury, disaster or the death of a loved one
- Toxic: strong and frequent adversity, such as abuse, neglect and mental illness
Positive stress (in moderation) is an everyday occurrence and a normal part of development
Positive stress for you could be your body’s reaction to starting a new job or running late to an event because your baby’s been sick down your shirt. Positive stress for babies could be reactions to things like getting jabs or spending the day with a new person. Heart rates may increase and hormone levels may elevate but they return to normal without any long-lasting effects. Some stress is even seen as beneficial: it’s been found to increase strength and focus, lead to cell growth in the brain’s learning centres, help with the body’s immunity, etc.
Although positive stress is normal, it can move on from positive stress if it becomes too intense or happens too frequently. When a person becomes stressed, their brain releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can prepare your body to face this stressful event, but when cortisol levels remain too high for too long, it can inhibit brain development. Later in this post, we explore causes and signs of stress, and tips on how to deal with it when it comes to you and your baby.
Tolerable stress needs to be managed properly
Tolerable stress is usually unavoidable, such as the body reacting to a natural disaster. Research by Hillary A. Franke found that, with tolerable stress, “Once the adversity is removed, the brain and organs recover fully given the condition that the child is protected with responsive relationships and strong social and emotional support.” So if the child is supported and nurtured, they can recover from this type of stress.
Pat Levitt writes that tolerable stress “Could affect brain architecture, but generally it occurs for briefer periods that allow the brain to recover and reverse any potentially harmful effects.” The events that cause tolerable stress are seen to be intense but short-lived, so stress hormone levels will rise, but as long as issues are overcome and not prolonged, the stress will not become toxic and the child can heal and continue with their healthy development.
Toxic “abnormal’ stress can have long-term, detrimental effects
Toxic stress is the type that parents should be concerned about as it can have detrimental, long-term, psychological effects on a child’s development, behaviour and wellbeing. It comes from strong, frequent or long lasting events such as abuse, neglect, substance abuse by a caregiver, etc.
Toxic stress can:
- Disrupt a baby’s brain architecture, affecting fear, anxiety, impulsive responses, reasoning, planning and behaviour
- Compromise immune systems as the constant release of cortisol stops immune cells from being able to recover.
- Increase a child’s vulnerability to addiction
- Put children at high risk for health problems in their adult lives, such as “Cardiovascular disease, cancers, asthma and depression.”
- Impact pregnancies, resulting in low birth weights and preterm births.
It is important that children do not experience toxic stress, as the effects can’t be erased, but there are helpful treatments available such as therapy, social and educational enrichment and relaxation techniques.
By noticing when and why you or your child are stressed, you can take steps to deal with it
It’s important that positive stress does not become too intense, and that tolerable stress is managed so that neither of these become toxic stress. This can be done by looking out for signs of stress and catching it before it develops.
Some signs of stress in adults include:
- Mood swings and angry outbursts
- Changes in appetite, sleep or libido
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Lack of interest in doing things
- Fear and difficulty trusting people
- Unusual sweating or rapid heart rate
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
Some signs of stress in babies include:
- They become less responsive, avert their eyes
- Uncontrollable crying and restlessness
- Strange movements (flailing limbs, arching back, etc.)
- Digestive problems
- Stomach aches, headaches and other physical ailments
- Nightmares or fears at bedtime (for older children)
- Habits such as hair chewing or thumb sucking (for older children)
Then, by figuring out why you are stressed, it might make it easier to focus in on that specific problem to make attempts at overcoming it or reducing its impact. This list by the Western Australia Department of Health highlights some of the main causes of stress for new parents. Many of these problems can’t be avoided, but there are a number of things that can help you and your family navigate through these stressful periods.
Some tips on dealing with normal stress
It is understandable that positive stress reactions can still cause concerns for parents, and it is important to understand and gain some control over tolerable stress so that it never becomes toxic. Here are some tips on how to reduce stress levels for you and your little one.
First, try to understand the reason for the feelings of stress
After you understand that you or your baby are stressed, the next step is to understand the reason behind the stress. Understanding the specific reason could enable you to remove the source of stress, if possible. If it can’t be removed, it could still help you to manage it better.
Don’t only focus on your child
Inevitably, your baby’s world revolves around you. So, to care for a baby, you must also care for yourself. It may seem like an impossible feat but making sure you are, for example, exercising, eating properly or getting as much sleep as you can (see our blog post on co-sleeping for more information), you can improve your mood and reduce stress, which goes a long way when creating a calm environment for you and your baby.
Be mindful of your emotions
As babies grow, they begin to become aware of your emotions, especially facial expressions. A study by LaBarbera et al found that, at four months, babies can differentiate between emotions. Part of a study by Theresa Farroni found that “Some expressions are discriminated and preferred in newborns only a few days old.” Babies are constantly trying to make sense of the world, and as their brains develop they will use your emotions to figure out what’s happening around them. Therefore, negative facial expressions may reflect fear and increase stress.
Cuddle your baby
Hugging and cuddling your baby can protect his/her brain from stress and keep them calm in adverse moments. A report from the American Association of Paediatrics shows how skin-to-skin contact can have positive psychological impacts for both the baby and parent. Immediate skin-to-skin care after birth has been found to reduce pain and crying in newborns and reduce maternal stress in mothers. Skin-to-skin care is especially beneficial to premature babies.
A study by Mörelius et al found that “Parental contact and human touch have a buffering effect on the infant’s stress reactivity and stimulate a more rapid development of regularity” So, not only does contact provide an in-the-moment stress release, it also prepares them to handle stress in the future.
Other types of touch can be helpful too: if your baby is suffering from digestive problems, try gently massaging their tummy.
Plan, track and organise
Although the disruption that a new baby brings may make it difficult to stick to plans, things such as a regular bedtime, or planning in advance which parent is getting up in the night can reduce tension at the time of the event. Tracking things such as your baby’s sleep, feeds, nappy changes, etc. can help you create a routine that works for you.
If you think that your baby is stressed, try to create a soothing environment without too much clutter, noise or bright lights, especially when it’s time for bed.
it may be difficult to admit that you need help, especially in a world where being “Pinterest perfect” has become a thing. Moreover, parents are “expected” to enjoy their bundle of joy while not getting stressed by them, so parents often feel guilty for being stressed, which makes it even more difficult. But having children comes with struggles for every parent, so sometimes feeling stressed, frustrated or even a bit sad is entirely normal. And when it gets a bit much, the best thing you can do is to share it with others. So, reaching out to friends and family can be a great source of support and information. And, although the growth of social media has brought along negative parenting pressures, it is also a fantastic way to learn from and connect with other parents.
Talk to your partner
Talking about things that you’re finding stressful with your partner can allow them to become more responsive to your needs, making your relationship and life more harmonious. Even if it’s only for a few minutes before bed, or a lunch break phone call – letting your partner know about your day, your worries, your hopes, etc. can help them to become more in tune with your needs. Research by Jason Moser et al has even found that talking to yourself can have a positive effect when it comes to controlling your emotions.
Teach children about stress as they grow older
Especially when it comes to tolerable stress, it’s important that a child understands why they are feeling the way they are and to know that they are supported. Make sure you answer their questions, listen to them, spend time with them without being overbearing and reassure them that their feelings are normal. Feelings of loss of control can lead to toxic stress, so by explaining, answering and ensuring that these feelings will pass, children can gain some sense of control over their lives. For example, by letting them know in a clear and calm manner about someone they know passing away, giving them time to process it and answering their questions, you may be able to lower stress levels and stop this tolerable stress from turning toxic.
You could also try practicing simple relaxation techniques, changing their focus with games and activities or using toys, books and films that can calm them and give them a better understanding of what’s happening.
In an ideal world we would all live stress-free lives, but that’s just not possible. Stress is not only unavoidable, but it’s a necessary part of our lives. Stressful moments will come and go in every family, so it’s just important to notice the type of stress, and to be prepared to deal with it quickly and carefully so that it does not affect your child’s development.
We’ve looked at a few, but there are many more ways to reduce parenting stress. Let us know in the comments if you have any more tips!